President Obama’s second inaugural address touched on the reality that the United States has a dysfunctional election system. Describing the nation’s progress, as well as the ways in which the nation needs to progress, the president declared, “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote.”
Obama drew knowing applause when he spoke that truth in January 2013, as he did in November 2012, when just hours after his re-election the president noted that millions of Americans had “waited in line for a very long time” to vote. Then, in an ad lib that got more attention that his prepared remark, the president added: “By the way we have to fix that.”
On Wednesday, the process of fixing the problem—and of moving America a few more steps toward democracy—accelerated. A little.
The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration that Obama appointed last year released a report that recommends:
1. Modernization of the registration process through continued expansion of online voter registration and expanded state collaboration in improving the accuracy of voter lists.
2. Measures to improve access to the polls through multiple opportunities to vote before the traditional Election Day and the selection of suitable, well-equipped polling place facilities, such as schools.
3. State-of-the-art techniques to assure efficient management of polling places, including tools the Commission is publicizing and recommending for the efficient allocation of polling place resources.
4. Reforms of the standard-setting and certification process for new voting technology to address soon-to-be antiquated voting machines and to encourage innovation and the adoption of widely available off-the-shelf technologies.
These are relatively tepid proposals. But they move in the right direction on several fronts. It is important to make it easier to register and vote; modernizing registration procedures and expanding early and absentee voting programs, can help with this. So, too, can the improved allocation of resources and technology to assure that every voter in every state has a roughly equal chance to cast a ballot in a timely, respectful and efficient manner.
So the president was pleased with the report. He received it with much fanfare and described the recommendations as “eminently glittering.”
Obama says that he and his aides will “reach out to stakeholders all across the country to make sure that we can implement” the commission’s report.” The president brings to this work a sense of urgency that is appropriate, reminding Americans that “one of the troubling aspects of the work that they did was hearing from local officials indicating that we could have even more problems in the future if we don’t act now.”
But no one, including the president, should imagine that what the commission has produced is a cure for what ails American democracy.
The commission’s report relies on technical repairs, and a faith in newer technologies. That’s not a fresh approach. After the 2000 fiasco in Florida, and the resulting intervention of the United States Supreme Court to prevent a thorough recount—and a thorough review of the failures and abuses of voting systems in the state—there were reports, and recommendations and allocations of resources for new technologies.
But there was not a shift in the mindset of the country regarding voting and elections. Indeed, those who would restrict and restrain the franchise stepped up their activism. And after the 2010 elections put Republicans in charge of the statehouses sacross the country, we saw a wave of new initiatives—many, though not all, of them crafted by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council—to impose restrictive Voter ID requirements, to limit early voting, to eliminate same-day registration.
The problems that inspired the president’s “we need to fix that” line were not necessarily technical or technological. They were often man-made. And the men who made them are still at work; in 2013, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than eighty bills restricting the right to vote were introduced in more than thirty states.
That figure serves as a reminder that the core challenges with regard to voting in America is not necessarily technological. Americans could vote on paper ballots quickly and efficiently, as do voters in many other countries. And if they did they might well be more confident in the count.
The core challenge has to do with an insufficient level of commitment on the part of local, state and federal agencies to creating the infrastructure and the mindset that fosters high-turnout elections.
The United States has an exceptionally low level of voter participation as compared with most developed democracies. In the parliamentary elections of European countries, it is not uncommon to see turnout levels surpass 70 percent, even 80 percent, of the voting-age population. In America, off-year congressional elections attract under 40 percent of the voting age population, and high-stakes presidential elections don’t get to 55 percent.
Why? Because the United States makes it hard to vote.
Unlike other countries that actually try to achieve maximum voter participation, the United States retains a separate-and-unequal electoral infrastructure that rests authority over voting and elections with individual states. Instead of making reasoned choices with the purpose of expanding turnout and assuring equal protection, our system leaves democracy to chance.
1. This country schedules elections on Tuesdays, rather than weekends.
2. This country does not make Election Day a holiday.
3. This country does not have a universal system for registering every citizen before his or her eighteenth birthday.
4. This country does not have a universal system for alerting all eligible voters that an election is coming, or for letting them know where and how to vote.
5. This country does not have universal standards for whether those convicted of crimes can vote, or for when and how those who have served their sentences will have their voting rights restored.
6. This country does not have universal standards for who can vote in a primary election, or for whether a run-off election will be held, or for how recounts will be conducted, or for how inconclusive results are to be addressed.
7. This country does not have universal standards for ballot design, or for how to deal with mismarked ballots, or for how to assure that ballots that have been cast are protected against tampering.
8. This country does not have universal standards for the distance one must travel to vote, or for the hours polls are to remain open, or for the set-up and operation of polling places, or for the availability of voting machines and other equipment, or for verifying that votes have been accurately cast and will be accurately counted.
The list of gaps in the structures of American democracy is long.
The recommendations made by the president’s commission address some of those gaps. But they do not begin to address all of them.
That does not mean that the commission’s report should be neglected. The recommendations should be used to encourage a process of improving the voting systems of the United States.
Wendy Weiser, the director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center is right when she says, “The Commission’s recommendations are a significant step forward. They make clear that nationwide our voting systems have common problems, which can be fixed with common, national solutions. Especially important is the consensus that we need to modernize voter registration, make early voting available to all Americans, and put systems in place so no one waits longer than 30 minutes to vote. These will be the new benchmarks against which future elections will be judged.”
The recommendations of the commission ought not, however, be seen as the “end of the journey” to democracy.
If we are realistic about the challenge of remaking America as a nation with high-turnout elections and truly representative democracy, what the commission has produced is barely a beginning.
A report is not enough. Recommendations are not enough.
What’s required is a teaching moment, led by the president and serious members of Congress, by reformers and academics and media and citizens of good will. And it ought to have as its goal a reshaping of how the United States understands voting and voting rights.
The truth is that, on too many levels, the United States does not respect the right to vote, to have votes counted and to have the results of voting genuinely reflected in the governance of communities, states and the nation.
Too much is left to chance. That has been made obvious in recent years, not just by the myriad state-based battles over restrictive Voter ID laws but by the US Supreme Court’s mangling of the Voting Rights Act.
More than a report is needed, more even than a new version of the Voting Rights Act—although the proposal made recently by Congressman John Conyers, D-Michigan, and James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisconsin, and Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, is a reasonable and needed step in the right direction.
What is ultimately required is an absolute guarantee of the right to vote and the right to have that vote counted. That affirmation should be added to the United States Constitution, in an amendment along the lines of the one proposed last year by Congressman Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Congressman Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin.
SECTION 1: Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2: Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
These are proper benchmarks. When the right to vote is guaranteed, when it is constitutionally established as fundamental, that is a strong place of beginning for establishing the infrastructure of genuinely functional and genuinely representative democracy.
“The right to vote is too important to be left unprotected,” explains Pocan. “At a time when there are far too many efforts to disenfranchise Americans, a voting rights amendment would positively affirm our founding principle that our country is at its strongest when everyone participates.”