Published by McClatchy.
(This version updated since publication)
After the State of the Union, the big question remains: Can congressional Democrats and Republicans put aside partisan politics to seriously address our national priorities? With the debt crisis ever looming and judicial and executive nominees languishing, there is plenty of opportunity for partisan rancor.
But there is one area where politics should be — and, surprisingly, may be — tossed aside: voting.
In 2011 and 2012, we saw a wave of states pass restrictive laws — along partisan lines — that would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. Citizens and voting advocates mounted a massive effort to push back and ensure everyone could have their say at the ballot box. In state after state, courtroom after courtroom, the most serious efforts to restrict the vote were rolled back and voters won.
Now, there are signs of a sea change: Politicians are pulling back from efforts to rig the system before they even get signed into law.
Already, plans to change electoral college vote rules appear to be dead in Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, where Republican governors and bipartisan groups of legislators opposed the idea. (Unfortunately, this is not the case in Pennsylvania.) And Florida Gov. Rick Scott has said he wants to expand polling place access and extend his state’s early voting days and hours — after he supported a law to cut them in 2011.
In the wake of the last election, where we saw long lines, voting machine shortages, voter registration failures, overwhelmed poll workers, and voters turned away, it is clearer than ever that we need to upgrade our elections to ensure our democracy remains free, fair, and accessible.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced a bipartisan commission — chaired by lawyers from his and Gov. Romney’s campaigns — to tackle these issues, a hopeful sign that members of both parties recognize the need to modernize our elections.
Today we can make sure every eligible voter who wants to be registered is registered, everyone who wants to vote can, and no one is turned away because of long lines.
The first step is modernizing voter registration. Most of the country still relies on a 19th century paper-based system that is inefficient and rife with errors. The Pew Center on the States found that one if four eligible citizens is not on the rolls, and one in eight registration records has serious errors. When poll workers have to rummage through reams of paper to find names that have been misspelled or included at the wrong address, long lines are exacerbated. In 2008, up to 3 million citizens tried to vote but could not vote due to registration problems. Up to one-third of unregistered citizens were registered at one point and fell off the rolls when they moved.
We have the technology to add 50 million eligible citizens to the rolls while improving accuracy and security. Voters could register online or paperlessly with public agencies. Their registrations would go with them when they move. And failsafe protections would guard against abuse and ensure no eligible voter is left out. States that have implemented these reforms see fewer errors, higher registration rates, and, ultimately, a lower price — modernizing saves millions. We have no excuse not to do it.
To address long lines, we also need to modernize when and how Americans vote. Expanding early voting will offer voters more convenience and choice. Minimum national standards for polling place access — strongly supported by voters — can ensure nobody has to wait more than an hour to vote. It is inexcusable that some voters waited for eight hours because there were not enough resources at the polling place for an election to run smoothly.
Long lines cannot become the lasting symbol of the American election system. We need to invest in our democracy so this does not happen in another election cycle. The president was right in his inaugural address — our journey is not complete until we make sure every eligible American who wants to vote is able to cast a ballot that counts. Americans want solutions to our problems, not partisanship. These are American ideas to fix what’s wrong. We can be an example to the world, rather than a cautionary tale — and demonstrate that on Election Day, all Americans are truly all equal.