Fixing America’s Broken Voting System

voting linesI want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that. President Barack Obama Victory Speech, Nov. 6, 2012

Now that the dust has settled and President Obama has been re-elected, America needs to make election reform and the universal expansion of voting rights a high priority.

We pride ourselves about living in “The World’s Greatest Democracy,” but America has yet to live up to the rhetoric. The GOP’s use of voter intimidation and voter suppression tactics in Election 2012 was notable for its scale and its utter outlandishness. But American elections have always been marred by shenanigans because the U.S. has perhaps the most backward election system of all the advanced democracies. And it’s an international embarrassment.

The idea that voting is a “privilege” – that some people are more deserving of political participation than others  – was built into the foundation of our country. Disenfranchisement and political inequality were written into the Constitution from the beginning. Even though political rights were expanded to more groups of people over the centuries, lawmakers never fixed major defects within the Constitution itself, nor did they undo outdated voting traditions that keep so many citizens away from the polls. Compared with other democracies, America is still operating its elections in the 19th century, rather than the 21st. We can’t keep calling ourselves “The World’s Greatest Democracy” if we can’t get the basic mechanics of democracy right. Below are some reform ideas I’ve thought about or have come across. If you have any other ideas, please share in the comments.

Start with an affirmative right to vote in the Constitution. Many Americans would probably be shocked to learn that there is no right to vote in the Constitution. The Founders initially restricted the franchise to white propertied males, and only after social struggle, was the franchise extended to black men, women and other people of color. Yet, because there isn’t an affirmative right to vote on the federal level, states still restrict the franchise through various means, such as voter ID laws or disenfranchising ex-felons. Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote – something I personally believe should be extended nationwide. So, in America, voting is kinda still a privilege, so we need to add clear language to the Constitution calling voting a right. As an example, here is Canada’s voting provision, which was added to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982:

Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of the members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein.

All election laws should be made at the federal level. This could be the most difficult aspect of our election system to change, specifically because the Constitution, through Articles 1 and 2, gives the states the authority over how to run elections, and how to choose electors to the Electoral College. As a result, we have a patchwork quilt of voting laws across the country, with different polling hours, eligibility rules, and even different ballot designs. However, the Constitution does let Congress preempt state election laws and provide oversight (hence, the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Still, localism in our election laws makes no sense. The U.S. should have a uniform set of voting laws that apply to every state and county. The fact that we don’t is the reason why electoral chaos happens. Localism has only enabled the kind of discriminatory practices endemic throughout our history, namely Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests, and today’s new voter I.D. laws.

Something as important to the national polity as voting shouldn’t depend on the whims of a small group of partisans, when the consequences of a state’s unfair and burdensome voting laws could have an adverse impact on a national presidential race. Amending the Constitution to abolish the Electoral College and give Congress the sole authority to establish election laws, is, of course, extremely difficult. Local elites who benefit from burdensome voting requirements – particularly GOP-led legislatures – will never go along. But maybe Congress can use its preemption authority to override all state laws and mandate national standards in polling hours, voter eligibility, recounts, ballot design, etc. (Maybe this idea could be a response to state challenges to the Voting Rights Act) I maintain that national standards have to be implemented. We’re either one nation, or we’re a collection of nations. We cannot continue to operate different sets laws when it comes to voting, because this situation is threatening to derail our democracy.

The government should be responsible for automatically putting all citizens onto the voter rolls as soon as they turn 18, or, if a legal resident, at the time of naturalization.I believe that once you are on the rolls, it should be for life.  Voter registration in the U.S. is low-tech, error prone, and vulnerable to partisan sabotage. You shouldn’t have to constantly fill out forms to prove your eligibility, nor should you have to worry that the seemingly nice guy you just handed your registration form to for mailing just might throw it in the trash. So far, the trend in voter registration reform has turned toward online voter registration (which was just introduced this year in my state of California) and same-day voter registration. These are both very good reforms that have proven to boost voter participation. However, in my opinion, these reforms don’t go far enough. I don’t think we should have to opt in to voting. If the federal government can issue every citizen a Social Security card, I don’t see why it can’t issue every citizen a free, official voter card – perhaps even one with a photo ID. The only part of voting we should opt into, is choice of political party.

Prohibit partisan elections officials. Secretaries of state and county clerks belonging to one political party or the other is one of the most foolish and dangerous features of the American electoral system. We’ve already seen Republican secretaries of state, through various means of voter suppression, try to tip or successfully tip a presidential election in favor of a Republican candidate. I mean, seriously? Why are we allowing this? Partisan hacks, like Katherine Harris and John Husted, have no business overseeing elections. Our Secretary of State here in California, Debra Bowen, who is a Democrat, has been wonderful and I voted for her, but her position needs to go as well. I’d like to see elections run by some sort of independent agency with election officials who are politically neutral.

Make it illegal for private citizens to challenge other citizens’ voter eligibility at the polls. This should make it more difficult for crackpot groups like True the Vote to operate, and may put them out of business. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t understand why we allow one group of people with possibly dubious intentions to randomly make up lists of other people to target for removal from the voter rolls? I don’t think people should have to worry that when they go to their polling place, some random person is going to challenge their right to vote. Overseeing the voter rolls should be the responsibility of neutral elections officials and poll officers who should be able to quickly access and verify names from a national database of voters.

Require that the number of available voting booths in a polling place is adequate and proportional to the number of voters in a precinct. We should no longer have a situation where some precincts only get one or two voting booths/machines, while other precincts have plenty. People shouldn’t have to wait in line for hours and hours simply to cast a vote.

Get rid of computerized voting machines and replace them with paper ballots, or if we’re going to have computerized voting machines, require rigorous oversight and paper receipts.

Move Election Day to the weekend. Even better, let’s have a 7-day Election Week. There’s no good reason to have Election Day on Tuesday. It’s an inconvenient and outdated tradition. Most people don’t know why Election Day is held on a Tuesday, and the organization Why Tuesday? nicely sums up the explanation here. The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has gotten me to wonder whether we should go farther. In light of the fact that voter turnout in the northeast was depressed because of the storm, I’m wondering why we even have Election Day in November at all. Why not in May, when the weather everywhere in the country is nicer? I realize such a change would be a major disruption, and mean we would then have to move primary elections back to those same brutal winter months. But this problem just exposes the ridiculous length of American election cycles in general, which has a lot to do with the fact that the United States has a unique majoritarian presidential, rather than a parliamentary, democracy – a topic for another essay.

Set up an independent commission to study reforms, and have this commission consider good ideas and practices from other advanced democracies. This commission would be non-partisan (so no combinations of former Democrat/Republican legislators), and would be made up of academics and representatives of organizations with expertise in election law.

Require the teaching of a robust civics curriculum in all of our schools, including studying the Constitution and emphasizing voting as a civic duty. I read about how civics education was once common in the U.S., but has declined since the 1970s because some people believed teaching civics was a form of indoctrination. That’s pretty alarming. I remember how my U.S. government class in high school was a joke. I’ve had to learn and relearn  about how our government works in college, graduate school and beyond. Children should get a good foundation in civics in order to be good citizens. I’d be glad to live in a country where it’s rare to come across people like a guy with whom I served on a jury once who didn’t even know the number of justices on the Supreme Court.

The Voter Empowerment Act of 2012 (VEA), which was recently introduced in the Senate, tries to address some of the flaws in our election system, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as I would like. For example, the bill requires states to offer online voter registration, but onlyencourages states to adopt same-day registration. These reforms fall short of universal automatic voter registration. Some people, more likely to be poor or elderly, can’t afford a computer, don’t know how to use one, or don’t have easy access to one. They would have to take the time to seek out a paper registration form. The VEA does allow states to automatically register willing voters who seek certain services, like a driver’s license, public assistance or veterans’ benefits. Voter registration, however, is still voluntary. But why complicate things? Why not just enroll everyone? I think compulsory voting in a country as big as ours is probably impractical, but at least requiring that everyone be registered to vote could send the message that voting is a civic duty.

The VEA does strengthen penalties against voter intimidation, and further restricts voter registration challenges, but I still question whether private citizens should even be able to challenge a voter at all. Finally, the VEA applies to federal – not state and local – elections. Was that an oversight, or is there a reason state and local elections aren’t mentioned? Also, the bill doesn’t require that elections officials be politically neutral and completely independent. It only says that a secretary of state cannot at the same time be involved in partisan political activities. Because of these defects, I have some mixed feelings about the VEA, but it’s a good start.

At its essence, voting is the fairest way to determine how a society distributes its resources. When one group tries to disenfranchise another, the former is trying to exact control over – and therefore, extract resources from – another group by ensuring that the latter has no avenue to complain and change the status quo. Voting is also the most peaceful way to try to rectify power imbalances.

sylvia mooreVoting keeps a society civil. It’s always better to vote an unpopular leader out, rather than to lop off his or her head. In the long run, the right wing does itself no favors by trying to win elections through cheating, rather than through their ideas. That dead end road only leads to bitterness, and ultimately, social unrest.

I encourage everyone to get a copy of and watch the excellent documentary, Electoral Dysfunction, narrated by comedian Mo Rocca. The film is a tongue-in-cheek look at America’s antiquated voting system against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential race.

Sylvia Moore

Republished from Daily Kos with the author’s permission.

Posted: Friday, 16 November 2012


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    The real fraud is the promotion of voting as an acme of empowered citizenship.

    Per the 1787 constitution, mass popularity-contest voting is a populist-veneer device to promote mass acceptance of citizen powerlessness: all public-policy decision-making given over to a small (and readily corrupted) Roman-republic-style oligarchy of high political officials (elected or appointed).
    As a math PhD I note that odds in a typical mass election (thousand
    voters or more) of your vote making the difference are negligible. Your lone vote will de facto change ZIP. It will not decide the winner(s) nor will it even be noticed (if you voted for a third party) as sending an off-beat message.

    Sure, voting is not entirely useless. Namely, in case a pollster interviews you, your ability to tell her with straight face you did vote will help give a bit of extra power to whatever politician-recognized interest-group voter blocs she assumes you belong to.

    As already the ancient Athenians knew, mass voting is not democracy. Real democracy would give you and everyone else each a real chance of making one or more of the public decisions which concern you – not merely a show of choosing someone else to make all those decisions. Real democracy could be achieved by use of many short-term citizen decision juries, each jury deliberating on one or just a few public policy decisions, with jurors selected at random from among all affected willing citizens, each citizen thereby performing a small and manageable but honored amount of public service.

    At present this sort of alternative is unattractive to many people, because
    it would be too simple and inexpensive, as well as embarrassingly reasonable and – well – democratic. It would replace an expensive and well entrenched system of irrelevant overhead on public-decision-making. System elements include: highly paid and perked and pensioned special politicians and officials – free to make decisions by corrupted whim; costly elaborate voting arrangements and horse-race-style entertaining media campaigns; real and artificial worries
    about mass voter fraud; and special heroic roles or careers for professional
    pro- or anti-establishment GOTV and other activists. All these elements would be made obsolete. Instead of powerless but emotionally satisfying mass voting to slogans and ideologies and party labels, juries would be able and required to follow rules and processes of friendly deliberation – such as consensus on aims and objectives, gathering and heed of evidence and public and expert testimony, exploration and evaluation of alternative solutions, etc. Applied ‘political science’ would become focused on investigating actual policy options instead of dissecting habits and mechanisms of voting, personal power grabs, ideological rhetoric, and horse-trading.

    Much too economical, democratic, reasoned and effective to be very attractive!

  2. harry wood says

    I read nothing about preventing voter fraud, a lady from NY voted there and in FL, where she spends the winter. You must also have a way to take people OFF the rolls if they should not be there. We have a clown senator who was elected by more votes than were in the district. I have never heard a GOP person say vote earlly and often, but the dem around here say that often, and it happens. You seem to think only the GOP tries to bend the rules,so you do not appear to me a perosn to have a a poll watcher.

  3. Timi Burke says

    I agree with automatic registration but you can’t tell Congress to mandate anything but the Federal Elections because to impose the perfect solution on state’s mid-term elections is the ticket for getting Republicans fired up against an over-stepping big govt under Democrats.

    Love the Election Week, maybe even Month, since saw so many people early voting this time. Yes paper sadly is the most secure – did you know electronic voting machines’ hard drives are required to stay on the premises for 30 days in case of audit, and in WI’s recall election, the manufacturers got most of them sent in because they generously offered to ‘store’ them? So we’ll never know if the recall was hi-jacked. However, the necessity of a Nov lies in the short length of the lame duck session comprised of the two major annual holidays, then bingo, new session.

    Also, in hard-red states it will be difficult to find a non-partisan election monitor or Sec of State — the only answer is two people in charge, Dem and GOP, with daily reporting to the local papers what’s up, so anticipation of transparency stifles shenanigans.

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