Even If It Ain't Broke, It Still Might Need Fixing

On Election Day, I did end up witnessing some obvious attempts to manipulate or pervert the system, as well as instances of system breakdown in the form of machine failures and the like. But what I mostly saw was this: even when the system works, it doesn’t work.

November 9, 2012

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I showed up for my 7-hour shift to field phone calls for the Election Protection hotline, where I would assist people who had voting-related questions or problems. Although the Brennan Center is well-known for its work on securing free, fair, and accessible elections, my work with the Liberty and National Security Program focuses on a different set of issues. But even before my shift that day, I had heard the horror stories: poll workers demanding identification that the law doesn't require, baseless challenges to voters' eligibility, anonymous organizations sending out postcards listing the wrong times and locations for voting, widespread voting machine failures, and more.

So I was initially relieved when the first few calls I took didn’t involve any of these underhanded practices or system breakdowns. Instead, the callers were people who had moved since the last election and had not registered in their new precincts. By design, most of the calls coming into this particular hotline site were from South Carolina and Tennessee—two states where voters must register at least 30 days before Election Day. The callers had simply missed the deadline, and many of them were now ineligible to vote. No trickery, no manipulation of the rules, no scandal: just the system at work.

But as the day wore on and it became apparent that the substantial majority of calls were on exactly this issue, I began to feel differently. The callers who learned that they would be ineligible to vote were frustrated, even devastated. Most were simply unaware that they needed to re-register after moving within the state, while others thought they could report their address change when they showed up to vote. To be sure, there were some who vaguely knew of the re-registration requirement and just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. But to them—and, by the end of the day, also to me—exclusion from our nation's democratic process seemed far too great a penalty for the modest and common crime of procrastination.

We are a mobile society, particularly in times of economic hardship when people may be forced to move frequently in order to find employment opportunities. Why should Americans be prohibited from voting simply because they changed their residence since the last time they voted? There are far better and less exclusionary ways—such as the Brennan Center's Voter Registration Modernization proposal—to maintain up-to-date, accurate lists of eligible voters. The fact that the current official solution to geographic mobility is to bar large numbers of people from voting is, in its own way, just as scandalous as the use of trickery to restrict access to the polls.

Throughout the day, I did end up witnessing some obvious attempts to manipulate or pervert the system, as well as instances of system breakdown in the form of machine failures and the like. But what I mostly saw was this: even when the system works, it doesn’t work. President Obama was right—we have to fix that.