Obama Needs to Embrace Voting Reform in 2013 State of the Union

February 12, 2013

Published in The Daily Beast.

In his stirring inaugural address, President Obama linked the civil rights struggles at Selma to the continuing chaos of America’s elections today. “Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote,” the president said.

Soaring sentiments, powerfully expressed. But what can be done about it? In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, the president should embrace reforms to ease long lines and avoid Election Day disasters. A high-profile plug in the big speech would keep the momentum going for reform.

After all, America’s electoral machinery is creaky. If the 2000 Florida recount felt like a multi-car collision, then 2012 was a near-miss. Citizens were forced to wait in line for hours all across the country. In Florida, voters had to wait for up to nine hours, and more than 200,000 gave up in frustration without voting. Hundreds of thousands of voters in Ohio had to cast “provisional ballots,” and tens of thousands were not counted because their names could not be found on the registration rolls. Had the election been close there, a maelstrom of litigation would have made us pine for hanging chads and Katherine Harris.

Around election time, Americans once again were astonished that we have such a hard time running such a basic democratic function. But as time passes, and other issues crowd in, momentum inevitably dims.

That’s where Obama can put his bully pulpit to powerful use. To promote democracy, he could use this most high-profile venue to talk about the things that would make a difference. The answer to “long lines” can start with “strong lines” in Tuesday’s speech.

Modernize registration. The main underlying cause of Election Day chaos remains our ramshackle voter registration system. It relies on mountains of paper. It is rife with errors and duplications. According to the Pew Center on the States, millions of dead people are on the rolls—yet some 50 million eligible voters are not. Millions of people show up on Election Day every year to discover that they are not registered or their names can’t be found, even though they should be.

It’s time for a paradigm shift on registration. Instead of today’s patchwork, governments should share the responsibility to assure that all eligible voters are on the rolls. Voter Registration Modernization (VRM) would electronically sign up all consenting citizens when they interact with a wide range of government agencies, from the DMV to Social Security. Notably, citizens would stay on the rolls even when they move. Such a system would enfranchise tens of millions while costing less than today’s paper-based approach. And it would curb the potential for fraud, helping to meet concerns of left and right.

Early voting. Another reason for long lines: inadequate time to vote on other days. Early voting has proved wildly popular wherever it has been tried. In North Carolina and Texas, for example, approximately two in three ballots were cast before Election Day. That makes it easier for working people to vote. And early voting eases the rush and crush on Election Day itself. Unfortunately, citizens face widely varying opportunities to vote early, depending on where they live. In Florida and Ohio, lawmakers cut back on early voting—especially on days, such as the Sunday before the election, where African Americans turned out in especially heavy numbers. Florida cut the number of days for early voting nearly in half. Who is surprised that on Election Day many showed up in droves, overwhelming polling places? Minimum national standards for early voting could assure that citizens in every state can vote for 10 days.

Minimum national standards for voter access. Different communities have different numbers of voting machines and poll workers per citizen. Without resources, lines grow long, as do tempers. Here, again, standards vary widely. A modern democracy would set basic rules about how many voting machines are installed, so everyone who seeks to vote can do so within an hour.

Each of these reforms would make the voting experience smoother. That customer-service approach is soundly needed. Few government programs have the immediate popularity of early voting, for example. Imagine if a company found that customers craved a product—and responded by cutting back production. Yet we tolerate it in our democracy, where partisans too often fiddle with rules to try to reduce the ability of some people to vote.

These changes would benefit enormously from presidential leadership. Already, Obama’s embrace of the need for reform has galvanized voting-rights backers. He should use his time at the national megaphone to draw attention to the need to revitalize democracy. Otherwise memories of electoral problems might fade, only to resurface two or four years from now in even worse forms. For democracy reform, 2013 is an “on year,” not an “off year.”