It’s been years since Bush v. Gore, and we still haven’t seen REAL comprehensive reform of our electoral systems and processes. The legislation that was finally passed in 2003, the Help America Vote Act or HAVA, has in this blogger’s opinion, made things worse rather than better, by reigning in a new regime of flawed and hackable electronic voting machines and paving the way for onerous and problematic voter identification requirements. Granted, the new law and regulations did improve access to voting to the disabled, and also made some improvements in the provision of provisional ballots, but overall, the cure may have been worse than the disease.
Another problem with HAVA? An overreliance on states to develop and implement new electoral plans that comply with HAVA in order to be eligible for federal funds, as HAVA imposed new federal requirements on the states in such areas as provision of voting machines, provisional ballots, voter registration, voter identification, and poll worker training. (HAVA consolidated many of the responsibilities and duties that counties were originally charged with in the states).
Unfortunately, the recent recommendations of the Carter-Baker Commission have not really advanced the cause of electoral reform very much, as these proposals would do little to reform problem areas in our electoral process and systems.
Republicans have now taken the lead on election reform, but their proposals, including the Hyde Voter ID bill (the “Federal Election Integrity Act of 2006″…sheesh) which passed the House 228-196, would disenfranchise and stymie would-be voters, rather than make it easier to vote, in the name of election “integrity.” For more on this bill, Dan Tokaji has a great post on just how problematic this legislation will be in terms of its impact on voting rights.
I contend that Democrats are missing out on a golden opportunity to frame the issue of voting rights and election reform as the fundamental issue of the upcoming midterm elections, but unfortunately, many don’t view it as a salient or central issue, or if they do, not central enough to make it on the infamous “Six for ‘06″ platform. I say to Democrats that we make this issue THE central issue of this campaign. Before we worry about a host of other issues, shouldn’t we ensure that everyone can actually vote to begin with? By drawing close attention to GOP measures to restrict the vote, Democrats can demonstrate that they are the more inclusive party.
The way I see it, there’s three priority items that Democrats need to focus on in articulating meaningful election reforms:
1. Motor Voter/Registration Issues: HAVA did little to resolve problems with the system of voter registration, and in some cases, actually made registration and proving registration more difficult. Democrats need to campaign on a system of automatic national voter registraton that travels with voters wherever they move AUTOMATICALLY. Democrats should propose creating a national federal database of voters that is tied to the U.S. Postal Service’s database of addresses. As this article suggests, moving is a major obstacle to voting, as many who move often fail to re-register in their new jurisdiction. (See also Wolfinger and Rosenstone, 1980). When someone changes their address, their voter registration would reflect that change. Simultaneously, and ideally in conjunction with the next census, a major effort should made to identify voters who do NOT have physical addresses to add to the federal database.
2. Reform Electronic Voting: I’m not a big fan of e-voting, but if we do use these systems, we should use a common-sense failsafe mechanism. Provide voters with receipts (in duplicate) indicating who they voted for electronically–voters would keep one copy, and the second would be put in a separate “lockbox.” If the receipts did not reflect the voters’ choices, the person in charge of the poll would then “Cancel” the vote and offer the voter a provisional ballot which would then go in yet another box.
3. Taking the States Out of the Equation: States have not had the best record when it comes to administering federal elections (and that’s putting it mildly). Hold state elections on a separate date from federal elections, and let the states run their own elections. And don’t rely on a system of federal requirements imposed on states–”federalize” federal elections entirely. We’re not talking about our interstate highway system–we’re talking about the right to vote–and that’s a FEDERAL right, not a state right. (At least after the passage of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act). The only way to prevent a repeat of Bush v. Gore is to avoid having the feds and the states sharing responsibilities in a muddled and confused patchwork of election laws.
So there you have it. If I was a candidate running for Congress right now, I’d make election reform my top priority (heck–I’d make it the centerpiece of my campaign). What can be more important than making sure that all citizens have access to voting rights? And yet the Democrats have failed thus far to propose and articulate a clear and coherent program on this issue, or if they have, have done a pretty lousy job of articulating it in their national policy statements, addresses, and messages.