People vote at a school in Los Angeles, Calif., on Nov. 6: For millions of Americans, simply casting a ballot has become increasingly difficult.
In his victory speech early Nov. 7, President Obama made an impromptu policy pronouncement: After thanking "every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time," Obama interjected, "by the way, we have to fix that." It may have been "a spontaneous aside," says The New York Times in an editorial, but Obama "acknowledged the unnecessary hardship of casting a vote in the United States and established a goal that he now has an obligation to address."
The issue: Upgrading America's voting system
The framers of the Constitution never articulated an explicit "right to vote," leaving suffrage criteria mostly to the states. In the beginning, most states opted to let only white male landowners vote. In fits and starts in the long years since, the U.S. has extended voting rights to various other groups of citizens: Non-white males (15th Amendment, 1870), women (19th Amendment, 1920), Native Americans (1924), voters who fail to pay poll taxes (24th Amendment, 1964-66), and all eligible 18-year-olds (26th Amendment, 1971). But what those amendments really do is prohibit states from denying the vote based solely on certain criteria. Congress shored up federal oversight against voting discrimination, especially against minorities, in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
After the 2000 presidential election, in which America became irritatingly familiar with ill-designed "butterfly" ballots, "hanging chads," and other problematic minutia of Florida's voting system, Congress stepped in again in 2002 with the Help America Vote Act. HAVA was designed to get states to upgrade their voting machines from punch-card and lever-based clunkers, modernize their registration processes, and at least minimally train poll workers.
In many ways, things have improved since 2000, especially on the voting-technology front. But much still needs to be done "to address the embarrassment to American democracy — and the indignity to citizens — of 8-hour lines to vote," as we saw in Virginia, Florida, and elsewhere this year, says Richard H. Pildes at The Atlantic. And speaking of embarrassments, says Richard Adams in Britain's The Guardian: In the country that invented the personal computer, the iPod, and many other technological marvels, the votes are still being counted two weeks after the election. "Despite celebrating its status as a cradle of modern democracy, the U.S. has an unhappy relationship with the nuts and bolts of elections."
What Obama can do to improve voting
The president is absolutely right about the need to fix our creaky, dysfunctional voting system, says the Hazleton, Pa., Standard Speaker in an editorial. "And, fortunately, there's a ready-made template to accomplish it, thanks to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's law school." The Brennan plan would automatically add to voter rolls anyone on other government lists, move registration online, let voters correct their information before election day, and cross-check that information with DMV data and other databases. "Obama should adopt the Brennan Center template as he seeks reform," plus push for uniform voting software for a pre-cleared list of electronic voting machines.
We also have to address the fact that elections are "controlled by a widely varying patchwork of state, county, and local laws," and often run by "dysfunctional partisans," says The New York Times. But if Obama makes it a priority, Congress "has the power to establish a nonpartisan federal elections board" that could set and enforce minimum standards on technology and vote-counting, and keep a national voter database. It could also push states to allow early voting, mail-in ballots, and other things to lessen the lines on Election Day. And for those things only states can control, the federal government can "provide financial incentives to the states to do the job right." If states still insist on making voting unduly hard, especially for minorities, "Obama should make a national effort to pressure them now that he has no personal stake in" any election.
Why Obama might fail
Outside of the bully pulpit and Congress' power of the purse, Obama still faces the American quirk that "administration of national elections is largely run and financed not at the national level or the state level but at the local government level," says Pildes in The Atlantic. And many local governments don't have the money, expertise, or, in some cases, interest in running efficient, voter-friendly elections. Remedying that would be a logistical nightmare.
In fact, "many states might do a great job, but the election result is only as good as its weakest battleground state link," says The Guardian's Adams. And there's another problem that makes voting harder, and that Obama can do little about: Too much democracy. "Voters entering a U.S. polling station can be handed a telephone directory of candidates," ballot measures, and municipal bond proposals. That makes voting a long process, and waiting even longer.
Plus, let's face it: Americans don't have the longest attention span, says Mary Sanchez in The Detroit News. Unless Obama and Congress act soon to "clean up the mishmash of [voting] rules, modernize the process, and address the real problems," my guess is that "it's on to the holidays and pre-Christmas sales. Stuff that turkey, hang the mistletoe, and whip out that credit card."
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