On two major occasions—during his election-night speech and second inaugural address—President Obama has highlighted the need for election reform. “By the way, we have to fix that,” he said on November 6 about the long lines at the polls in states like Florida. Shortly thereafter, the cause of election reform seemed to fall by the wayside, with more pressing events, such as the Sandy Hook shooting and the fiscal cliff, dominating the news. But Obama returned to the issue on January 21, saying “our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
Now the question is whether the Obama administration and Congress will actually do something to fix the shameful way US elections are run. There are smart proposals in Congress to address the issue. The most comprehensive among them is the Voter Empowerment Act, reintroduced today by Democratic leaders in the House, including civil rights icon John Lewis, and Kirsten Gillibrand in Senate.
The bill would add 50 million eligible Americans to the voter rolls by automatically registering consenting adults to vote at government agencies, adopting Election Day voter registration, and allowing citizens to register to vote and update their addresses online. (As Attorney General Eric Holder noted recently, 80 percent of the 75 million eligible citizens who didn’t vote in 2008 were not registered to vote.) It would also guarantee fifteen days of early voting to ease long lines, restore the voting rights of felons after they’ve served their time and ban deceptive ads aimed at suppressing voter turnout. “It’s got almost everything in there that we think is important,” says Eric Marshall of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
The Voter Empowerment Act is supplemented by other worthwhile proposals in Congress. There is Senator Barbara Boxer’s LINE Act, which mandates national standards for a minimum number of voting machines and election workers in each precinct, and Senator Chris Coons’s FAST Act, which gives grants to states that conduct elections efficiently, modeled after Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative. Both Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have designated election reform as a top priority for the new Congress.
“It’s too early to tell what will pass, but there’s a lot of commitment to move these bills from their supporters, including Democratic leaders of both houses of Congress,” says Wendy Weiser, director of the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Obama has already announced an ambitious legislative agenda focused on gun control, immigration reform and climate change, but supporters of election reform believe the administration is ready to move on this issue as well. “They have stated this as a much bigger priority than it was before,” adds Weiser. “Based on my conversations with people in the administration, I’m convinced they are committed to figuring out how to contribute to a solution.”
The need for a fix is clear. A study conducted for the Orlando Sentinel found that 201,000 Floridians didn’t vote in 2012 because of long lines on Election Day. A separate study found that in-person early voting numbers decreased by 225,000 compared to 2008, when the state had six more days of early voting. Moreover, black and Hispanic voters bore the brunt of the state’s election problems. “African Americans and Hispanic voters were more likely than white voters to cast provisional ballots and nearly twice as likely to have their provisional ballots rejected,” according to University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith and Dartmouth University professor Michael Herron. Additionally, “the African American absentee ballot rejection rate was nearly twice the absentee ballot rejection rate of white voters.”
In Ohio, another GOP-controlled state that curtailed early voting compared to 2008, large urban counties had wait times of one to four hours during the three days of voting before the election, while smaller counties had wait times of only thirty minutes to an hour, according to a by Norman Robbins of Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates.
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The public wants its elected representatives to address these problems. A post-election poll found that 88 percent of 2012 voters support new national voting standards. By nearly two to one, the public is more concerned about “eligible voters being denied the opportunity to vote” rather than “ineligible voters getting to vote.”
“The moment calls for something big,” says Marshall. “There’s a desire for an overhaul. It’s just a question of the will.”
Any election reform deal will require Republican support, which so far hasn’t been forthcoming. “I don’t think it’s the federal government’s role to make sure there are no long lines,” Representative Candice Miller (R-MI), chairman of the House Administration Committee, recently told Politico.
Yet the news from the states shows that GOP resistance to making it easier to vote has cracked a bit. Florida Governor Rick Scott, who presided over a controversial cutback in early voting days, now supports expanding early voting and increasing the number of polling locations. Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell recently voiced his support for automatically restoring the voting rights of ex-felons.
These hopeful signs, however, are offset by a continuation of disturbing trends. GOP-controlled states like North Carolina are planning to pass new voter ID laws, while GOP state legislators in swing states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin are trying gerrymander the Electoral College to boost the party in future presidential contests.
Such voter suppression efforts backfired on the GOP in 2012, getting blocked in court and motivating a larger turnout among young and minority Obama supporters. “The Republican Party should be a party that says, ‘We want everybody to vote,’ and make it easier for people to vote and give them a reason to vote for the party, and not to find ways to keep them from voting at all,” Colin Powell recently advised the GOP. Supporting sensible election reform efforts would be a good place to start.