Bipartisan Call for Reform of U.S. Elections

On January 22nd a bipartisan presidential commission unanimously recommended many changes to U.S. election laws and procedures to reduce lines and wait times, speed counting, and end confusion that can lead to delays and disenfranchisement.

Here are some of the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration:

1. Expand online voter registration.

2. Expand states’ sharing of voter rolls to prevent registration in more than one state.                                                                      

3. Plan resources to cut voter wait time.

4. Expand early voting.

5. Hold elections in schools.

6. Adopt uniform guidelines for voting machine technology.

7. Conduct comprehensive, public audits of voting machines after every election.

8. Improve transfer of personal data from departments of motor vehicles to election officials.

9. Develop professional, nonpartisan teams of election officials.

10. Recruit new and more diverse poll workers, including those with foreign language abilities.

11. Train the poll workers.

12. Provide waiting voters with information to ensure they have the proper identification and are at the correct polling place.

13. Use electronic poll books with search function.

14. Provide online absentee ballots.

These recommendations echo some of the suggestions previously made in this blog.

 

 

 

 

U.S. Needs New Voting Rights Act

Problems exist with the present U.S. voting systems and procedures. Here are just a few:

  • In the November 2012 general election, many states that were controlled by Republican state legislatures and governors adopted various measures that, in my opinion, were intended to suppress voting by U.S. citizens, including minorities, who were deemed likely to vote for Democratic candidates.
  • Late this June the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important provision of the Voting Rights act of 2006. [1]
  • Immediately after that Supreme Court decision, some states–most notably Texas [2] and North Carolina–have moved to implement or adopt restrictive voting laws. [3]

This blog has criticized these efforts to restrict voting and that Supreme Court decision. This blog also has proposed ways to expand voting in this country, many of which have been voiced as well by Norman Ornstein, author and Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.[4]

Here are my suggestions for a new federal Voting Rights Act.

First, every U.S. citizen entitled to vote.

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. Other states impose various restrictions, with 12 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 5.9 million citizens 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.[5]

Second, every U.S. citizen required to vote.

Every citizen should be required to vote at least in national elections.

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.

Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann 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, no racial discrimination in voting.

Using the language of the Voting Rights Act of 2006, forbid any “standard, practice, or procedure” that “results in a denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Fourth, simplified voting laws and procedure.

To make it easier to vote, Ornstein and Mann offer the following suggestions:

a. A new voter registration regime. Ornstein asserts, “eligible citizens should be presumed registered.”  Allow online registration and transfer of such records when the voter moves to a new home by sharing data with private databases. Allow “same-day voter registration available for those not registered via their draft registration or driver’s license. Ideally, Congress would provide the funds to modernize voter registration lists and create a 21st-century voting process in which voters could get personalized ballots printed, with all the offices they are eligible to vote on, at any polling place in their vicinity. Why shouldn’t Americans be able to vote at any nearby polling center?”

b. More easily accessible polling places. Use facilities in or near shopping centers or arenas.

c. Weekend Election “Day.”  As Ornstein says, “’Election Day’ should suit contemporary American life:  a 24-hour period from noon Saturday to noon Sunday, with early voting the week before. This would eliminate ‘rush-hour’ backlogs early in the morning and at the end of the day, as well as Sabbath problems. If Wal-Mart can stay open 24/7, our democracy can stay open 24 hours once every two years.”

d. Social Security cards as valid voter IDs. Any U.S. citizen, Ornstein asserts, “who can provide proof of a valid Social Security number should be able to obtain, free, a Social Security card with a photo. It should be mandated as acceptable for identification wherever a photo ID is required to vote. Such cards should be available not just at Social Security offices but also at post offices.”

e. Uniform separate federal election ballot. Finally, Ornstein believes “Congress has the clear constitutional right to manage federal elections. A separate ballot for federal races strengthens that control. Other advantages include no more confusing butterfly ballots; there would be no more than three races (president, Senate and House) on a federal ballot. No more provisional ballots or access denied if someone shows up at the wrong polling place; the vote would still count only for those federal offices.”

Conclusion

These voting changes would help make the federal government more accountable to the citizens. Other changes to aid in this effort have been suggested in this blog: certain constitutional changes, elimination of the U.S. Senate’s filibuster rule and reforming the system for creating new congressional districts after the decennial census.


[1] Former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has criticized the Court’s decision invalidating a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

[2] On July 25th the Department of Justice sued the State of Texas to ask a federal court to require Texas to get permission from the federal government before making voting changes. The suit is based upon section 3 of the Voting Rights Act of 2006 which allows such relief if the Government shows that the jurisdiction has committed constitutional violations with respect to voting. Richard H. Pildes, a New York University professor said, “If this strategy works, it will become a way of partially updating the Voting Rights Act through the courts.”  A Washington Post editorial endorsed this approach while also calling on Congress to enact a new statutory formula for comprehensive coverage of states for such preclearance. An editorial in the New York Times also supports this approach as does Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne, Jr.

[3] New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, points out that almost all of the states that were covered by the Voting Rights Act provision that was invalidated are Republican-controlled and are now wasting “no time . . .  to institute efforts to suppress the vote in the next election and beyond.”

4] 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 (Basic Books; New York 2012); Ornstein, Let’s enact a new Voting Rights Act, Wash. Post (July 17, 2013).

[5] I originally made such a suggestion in 1996.

Improving U.S. Voting Procedures

The New York Times has called the U.S. voting system “broken” and made a number of suggestions for improving the system.

First on its agenda is making it easier to vote.

Congress should establish a nonpartisan federal elections board “to maintain a national registration database, mandate the choice of voting machines and set standards for counting provisional ballots” Another desirable federal law would “require a clear early-voting period, removing the issue as a political football in states like Florida and Ohio, and standards for absentee voting.”

Yet another federal legislative proposal would “give grants to states that make registration easy, including allowing same-day registration; allow early voting; require no excuses for voting absentee; properly train poll workers; and provide sufficient polling places”.

States on their own could follow the lead of 17 states that already send electronic registration data from motor vehicle departments to election agencies, and of 10 states that allow people to register online.

Second on its agenda is removing barriers to voting.

In this year’s election Republicans in some states attempted to keep Democratic-leaning groups from voting, through methods like voter ID requirements. Republicans should abandon “this misguided and offensive effort.” Legislative action may be necessary to ban such measures.

Third on its agenda is diluting the power of money.

Ultimately this would require a constitutional amendment to countermand the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that the Constitution´s First Amendment Free Speech clause protects corporations’ monetary expenditures in political campaigns.

In the meantime legislation should be adopted to require disclosure of the corporate sources of such financial contributions and eliminate secret contributions. Another proposed law would offer federal money to match individuals´political contributions.

Conclusion

I concur in these recommendations as discussed in a prior posts about maximizing U.S. voting, the excesses of false allegations of voter fraud and the urgent need for reforming the election system.

Excesses of People Falsely Alleging Voter Fraud

The prior post discussed the need to fight efforts to restrict voting in the U.S., including those purportedly aimed at squashing voter fraud.

A new article by Justin Levitt, an associate professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, discusses the problems created in Montana in the 2008 election by people who made false accusations of voter fraud.

For the 2012 election, Levitt reports, there have been “challenges based on ostensible felony status in Florida, ostensible deaths in North Carolina and ostensible address problems in Ohio, among others. Some of these challenges appear to be the work of isolated individuals, others are coordinated by local groups ’empowered by’ national entities like True the Vote. The common thread is that the challenges are based not on personal information about particular voters, but computerized scans of data records.”

There are at least three major problems with such challenges, according to Levitt.

First, the underlying databases for the challenges are inaccurate.

Second, some challenges are aimed at situations that may be unusual, but legitimate: (a) “voters registered at business addresses, ignoring the fact that small business owners or managers may live where they work;” (b) “immigrants, ignoring the fact that noncitizens may have become naturalized [U.S. citizens];” and (c) “students and others in group housing.”

The third major problem created by such challenges is the burdens they place on “overworked and underpaid officials desperately trying to make sure that the elections run smoothly” and on “eligible citizens [who are pulled] away from jobs and families into unnecessary legal hearings.” It is even worse for such challenges to absentee ballots from legitimate voters who have little practical chance to defend themselves.

Many of these challenges, according to Levitt, have been resisted by most election officials.

On election day itself, such officials should be skeptical of anyone “walking around with long lists of ostensibly illegal voters” that are most likely full of mistakes. The officials should “swiftly reject challenges that are not founded on credible personalized knowledge about individual voters, and they must remove volunteers who become overzealous. There must be room for civic participation, but there can be no room for unfounded disruption to the right to vote.”