On November 6th the U.S. will have a very important national election.
This should remind us that a democratic republic like ours should have laws and procedures that simplify and maximize our citizens’ ability to vote. Unfortunately we do not meet this test. Here are my opinions on addressing this disparity.
Reforming the U.S. Voting System
First, the electorate should include every U.S. citizen.
That includes all citizens who have been convicted of felonies and who are still in prison and those who have served their sentences. They are human beings who have interests and opinions, and they have unique experiences of life inside our prisons, which are often neglected in the political debate about allocation of resources.
Now only two states (Maine and Vermont) impose no voting restrictions on felons or ex-felons. The other states impose various restrictions, with 11 states (six in the South) banning ex-felons from voting even after they have completed prison and probation or parole. As a result, an estimated 5.5 million people are disenfranchised on this basis, about one-fourth of whom are still in prison. Because 38.2% of these people are African-American, it is also a racial justice issue.
The electorate also should include all children. They too are human beings with interests that should be reflected in elections. This is especially true in an electorate in which older citizens tend to vote in higher percentages and naturally have an interest in programs and services that benefit them. I am a member of the older group and yet believe our political influence needs to be counterbalanced by the voices of the youngest. Creation of a voting system to allow all children to vote would require a lot of careful consideration of how this could be accomplished. It presumably would have parents or guardians voting for their children through a certain age such as 16 or 18.
Second, every citizen should be required to vote at least in national elections.
I know that this is true in many countries so it can be done. Such a system, I believe, would have the beneficial effect of causing political parties and candidates to appeal to voters in the middle of the political spectrum and thereby combat the polarization of our political system. Again, creation of such a system would require careful consideration of how that could be done.
Noted political commentators, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, have made such a proposal. One means of enforcing such a law, they say, would be a modest fine, say $15, for failure to vote with increased amounts for repeated failures. Another way would be to provide a small tax credit for voting.
Third, we should simplify our voting laws and procedures to make it easier to vote. Mann and Ornstein offer the following suggestions in this regard:
- Modernizing voter registration by allowing online registration and transfer of such records when the voter moves to a new home, by sharing data with private databases, by having national election-day registration.
- Having more easily accessible polling places, such as in or near shopping centers or arenas.
- Creating a uniform separate federal election ballot.
- Changing election day from Tuesday to a more convenient time, like noon-Saturday to noon-Sunday.
- Having a uniform national early voting period, such as Wednesday through Friday before election day.
Fighting Efforts To Restrict Voting
Unfortunately too much effort is being spent these days to restrict voting. It includes restricting legitimate voter registration drives, purging voter rolls and limiting early voting. Even worse are reports in the New York Times and HuffingtonPost of voter registration drives that submitted false applications and destroyed legitimate ones.
In a recent New Yorker magazine Jane Mayer examines the well organized “True the Vote” effort that says it aims to fight and eliminate voter fraud. In my opinion, however, there are serious questions as to whether it really is an effort to suppress the votes of African-Americans, young people and others who tend to support Democratic Party candidates and causes.
One of the means by which “True the Vote” seeks to do this is promotion of state voter photo-ID laws which sound good on the surface, but often do not work that way. Even if such laws provide for free government-issued IDs, they sometimes do not provide without charge the documents (e.g., birth certificates) that are necessary to obtain such IDs. They also sometimes fail to provide reasonably accessible sites to obtain the ID’s or alternative ways to prove a voter’s identity.
This year in Minnesota, we will be voting on a proposed constitutional amendment to have a photo-ID requirement. The simple question on the ballot will be:
- “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?”
The actual proposed constitutional amendment, however, is more complex. It is the underlined text in the following:
- Article VII, Section 1. (a) Every person 18 years of age or more who has been a citizen of the
United States for three months and who has resided in the precinct for 30 days next
preceding an election shall be entitled to vote in that precinct. The place of voting by one
otherwise qualified who has changed his residence within 30 days preceding the election
shall be prescribed by law. The following persons shall not be entitled or permitted to
vote at any election in this state: A person not meeting the above requirements; a person
who has been convicted of treason or felony, unless restored to civil rights; a person under
guardianship, or a person who is insane or not mentally competent.(b) All voters voting in person must present valid government-issued photographic
identification before receiving a ballot. The state must issue photographic identification
at no charge to an eligible voter who does not have a form of identification meeting the
requirements of this section. A voter unable to present government-issued photographic
identification must be permitted to submit a provisional ballot. A provisional ballot must
only be counted if the voter certifies the provisional ballot in the manner provided by law.
(c) All voters, including those not voting in person, must be subject to substantially
equivalent identity and eligibility verification prior to a ballot being cast or counted.
Such a system would create havoc on election day. Election judges, who are volunteers, would have to decide on the spot the validity of photo-Ids from 50 states and the District of Columbia, the U.S. military, 565 federally recognized Indian tribes and U.S. passports. This would require intensive training of such judges in the laws of all those entities. For example, Minnesota law states that a valid Minnesota driver’s license is one that is “not expired, suspended, revoked or cancelled” and that has been issued within 30 days of the driver’s having moved to a new address. Each of the other states and entities may have different criteria for such validity.
In addition, Minnesota election judges also receive the absentee ballots and thus would be faced with the responsibility of determining validity of other ID’s and whether they were “substantially equivalent to” those required of voters voting in person.
The Minnesota Secretary of State and the local election officials in the state say that compliance with such an amendment would be very expensive in terms of training election judges and administering the system. In addition, I believe there probably would be many people who would not volunteer for these positions with the increased complexity of the job.
The major newspaper in the state, the StarTribune, has opposed this proposed constitutional amendment.
I will vote “NO” on this proposed amendment and urge my fellow Minnesotans to do the same!
Improving the Accountability of the Federal Government
There also are ways to improve the accountability of the federal government to the electorate. Here are some of those ways.
We should amend the U.S. Constitution to eliminate the electoral college for presidential elections and instead have direct, popular voting to choose our national leader.
We also should amend the Constitution to change the term of office for members of the U.S. House of Representatives from two years to four years and have their elections coincide with the presidential elections. Perhaps too the term of office of U.S. Senators should be changed from six to eight years, again with their elections coinciding with the presidential elections. This would eliminate midterm elections that often result in divided government, thereby making it more difficult to do anything at the national level.
Another constitutional amendments would adopt weighted voting by U.S. Senators so that each Senator from the least populous state (Wyoming) has one vote while each Senator from the most populous state (California) has a vote that counts as 66 votes.
Reform the system for creating new congressional districts after the decennial census by delegating the task to an independent commission that operates under explicit standards for fairness and political competition.
Change political party primary elections to open primaries.
Adopt proportional representation in multi-member districts.
I recently have been volunteering for the Obama campaign and am astounded to see first-hand the immense logistical, managerial and financial requirements for a presidential candidate’s identifying his or her likely voters and urging them to vote early or go to the polls to vote on election day in a country with a population of nearly 312 million spread out over nearly 4 million square miles. This is even more difficult for candidates like Obama who count on the support of younger voters, who move more frequently and change from being students to working out in the larger world.
To my fellow U.S. citizens, please vote in this election!
 Thomas E. Mann & Norman J. Ornstein, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collides with the New Politics of Extremism at 140-43 (Basic Books; New York 2012).
 Id. at 133-40.
 Id. at 164.
 Id. at 166-72.
 Id. at 143-47.
 Id. at 147-49.
 Id. at 149-52.