Too many U.S. jurisdictions allow our elections to be run by political partisans. Local officials have too much control, and often lack adequate training and resources. Political rhetoric has been ratcheted up and mistrust has been building thanks to spurious and exaggerated claims of voter fraud (and in some cases voter suppression) by political provocateurs. Social media inflames partisan passions and could push the next election meltdown into the streets.
What can be done to end the voting wars?
We might begin by asking about the goals of a fair and effective election system. Most people of good faith considering this problem likely would agree with this statement: an election system should be designed so that all eligible voters, but only eligible voters, may freely cast a vote which will be accurately counted.
If we were able to design our system of running elections from scratch, the best way to achieve this goal would be to use a system of national, nonpartisan election administration. The people who run our elections should have their primary allegiance and owe their professional success to the fairness and integrity of the political process and not to a political party. This is how it is done in Australia, Canada, the U.K., and most other serious democracies.
We could choose the head of a new national nonpartisan election agency by making the position one nominated by the president and subject to a 75% confirmation in the Senate. Whoever can meet that requirement will be a person of unquestioned integrity and fairness. Both parties should have access to all aspects of the election process to make sure that the election agency is acting fairly and competently.
As the references to the President and Senate suggest, we should also nationalize our federal elections to insure greater uniformity. People should be able to walk into a polling place anywhere in the country and see the same machinery and the same form of ballot.
Diversity of approaches is great in many areas, but not in election administration. Discretion also is problematic because it leaves the process too open to partisan manipulation and subconscious bias. While there are many local election administrators doing an admirable job, and a handful of local election administrators doing innovative and important things, it only takes one Kathy Nickolaus to bring down a presidential election.
We could eliminate all the problems with voter registration fraud, double voting across state lines, noncitizen voting, and onerous state voter identification requirements by tasking a national independent election agency with registering all eligible voters and providing all voters a national voter card free of charge (including charges for secondary documents needed to verify identity). Voters would have the option of sharing a thumbprint, which could be used to verify identity if a voter loses or forgets the card. The government would register new voters when they turn 18, graduate high school or drop out. When you fill out a change-of-address card at the post office, your voter registration automatically moves with you.
Is all of this a pipe dream? Absolutely.
I don’t expect to see any of these changes in the foreseeable future. Congress and state legislatures have become increasingly polarized, and election reform is not on the agenda—except for partisan reform aimed at helping the party in power (such as the decisions by Republican legislatures to cut back on early voting, and the decisions of Democratic legislatures to move toward election day registration).
Further, Republicans are ideologically opposed to national solutions to problems, and would condemn a national election agency as a federal bureaucracy. Democrats, some immigration reform groups, and privacy advocates oppose national voter i.d., even if it is free and the thumb print optional.
State and local election officials would lobby against the proposal too. Already the National Association of Secretaries of State has sought to close down the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an agency Congress created in 2002 to provide nothing more than advice and best practices to state and local election officials and money to replace obsolete voting machines. Imagine the turf war if Congress proposed an agency with some real power! Incredibly, all four EAC commissioner seats are now vacant as we enter the busiest period of the 2012 election.
We can start by taking baby steps, such as a moratorium on election changes in the few month before the election, but even that is not going to happen. Fat chance Gov. Rick Scott of Florida will give up his new voter purge. After the election we can convene bipartisan commissions to propose reforms. They tried that in Ohio after the 2008 election, but it did not go well.
In the meantime, people have to remain vigilant against the provocateurs and hucksters who undermine the confidence in our elections with false, exaggerated and misleading claims of voter fraud or voter suppression.
So long as politicians will be in charge of elections, people need to use their own political power to fight against election changes which will make the system worse. After all, it was the outcry against the untenable situation of more early voting hours in Republican counties than in Democratic counties in Ohio which got Ohio Secretary of State Husted to impose uniformity on the system—albeit uniformity without weekend voting which likely helps Republicans.
And despite the fact that, as demonstrated in The Voting Wars, judges on state and federal courts often vote in line with the interest of the party from which the judge comes, courts sometimes have provided relief from some of the most egregious partisan excesses. Litigation will be necessary, and clarifying the rules to apply to vote counting before the election will pay significant dividends in any post-election dispute.
As for the bigger, more fundamental changes I’ve outlined above? We may have to wait for a crisis worse than Florida 2000 before we can truly fix our elections and move beyond the voting wars.