America’s ‘Electoral Dysfunction,’ the Unwieldy Burdens on Voting

October 9, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

The efforts by Republican controlled statehouses to create more hurdles to voting, such as limiting early voting, creating onerous voter identification requirements, and making it more difficult to conduct voter registration drives, are hardly a recent trend.

Victoria Bassetti, author of Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manual for American Voters, argues in numerous articles that for a country that prides itself on its form of democracy the burdens on voting do not make good public policy nor provide a solid foundation for a healthy democracy. (This month PBS will air an “Electoral Dysfunction” documentary; the book is a companion piece to the documentary.)

In a piece for The Washington Post, Bassetti says our system of voting is “mystifying” to other countries, largely because of the burdens we place on voting.

“In the United States, we put the burden on the voter,” she writes. “And in doing so, we keep company with nations such as the Bahamas, Belize and Burundi.”

While maintaining that very few would label voter registration “anti-democratic,” she notes that “many political and social scientists believe that our country’s practice of putting the registration burden on individuals, coupled with outmoded, paper-intense registration systems, are major causes of the United States’ perennially low voter turnout. One study estimated that voter registration barriers in the United States depress turnout by 5 to 10 percent.”

In an Oct. 6 column for The New York Times, Bassetti explores how low turnout “produces poor representation, which produces laws people are disinclined to obey and so undermine the process.” She also mentions a rather interesting study regarding how difficult it can be for men to vote, especially if their candidates lose. The study, produced by scientists at Duke and University of Michigan, has something to do with testosterone levels in men and people with normal serotonin levels. (Simply or crudely put, voting can be tough on men because of testosterone reactions and people with weak serotonin systems.)

Though interesting, Bassetti says such studies are not especially helpful to handling “complex issues facing our democracy.”

Some of that complexity centers on the bureaucratic mess voting has become in many states.

She writes:

Americans are struggling with a severe case of electoral dysfunction. They have to navigate bureaucratic hurdles needed to cast a ballot — the hassles of getting and staying registered, finding the polling station, standing in long lines, deciphering ballots and complying with much contested and confusing ID requirements. New restrictions on early voting, limitations on voter registration initiatives and voter roll purges contribute to the dysfunction.  

Though there is no explicit federal right to vote, as Bassetti notes for Harper’s, there are constitutional bars to discriminating against voters based on their race or gender for instance and poll taxes. And some state constitutions explicitly declare a right to vote.

With the lack of an affirmative federal right to vote and a U.S. Supreme Court that has proven itself out of touch with reality on a number of occasions (think Citizens United v. FEC, or some of Justice Antonin Scalia’s comments that make him appear frozen in the 18th century), Bassetti says states have been able to continue to burden the voter and not surprisingly produce poor turnout.

“Voter registration requirements are convoluted,” she writes for Harper’s. “Voter rolls are purged chaotically. Ballot design is unregulated and amateurish. Polling hours are haphazard. Voting equipment ranges from high-tech to derelict. Vote-counting and recounting systems are unsystematic.”

And it doesn’t have to be this way. As explored in an ACS Issue Brief earlier this year by Loyola law school professor Justin Levitt says the reasons for onerous voting restrictions are dubious and the more rigid ones are constitutionally suspect.

Supporters of the harsh voter restrictions, claim they are needed to prevent voter fraud. Levitt says that’s a sham; very little voter fraud can be found in this country. And some of the new voter ID requirements look a lot like a poll tax. Levitt notes the great difficulty that the requirements put on low-income people, students and minorities.

But as noted here time and again, the push for additional burdens on voting look too much like yet another shameful effort to suppress the vote of certain groups of people.