Electoral Dysfunction

  • March 15, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, also called the “motor voter” bill) was enacted to make it easier for people to register to vote. It promotes voter registration drives and requires states to permit people to register to vote via a simple postcard when they obtain or renew their drivers’ licenses or through the mail.

    But some states have chosen to move in the opposition direction. For example, Florida in its overhaul of voting procedures not only attempted to limit early voting, it sought to make it onerous for groups like the League of Women Voters to conduct voter registration drives. Arizona enacted a law that would make it more difficult for people to register through the mail, by demanding more proof of citizenship.

    The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard oral argument in a case challenging the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires certain states and towns – those with a clear history of past problems – to obtain “preclearance” of any changes they make to their voting procedures to ensure they do not discriminate against voters because of race. Several of the high court’s right-wing justices appeared ready to strike the preclearance provision in Section 5 of the law. If that were to happen it would deal a significant blow to one of the nation’s most powerful tools to combat racial discrimination in voting.

    On Monday, the high court will hear oral argument in another case challenging the federal government’s constitutional power to protect the right to vote. In Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., the justices will consider an opinion from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that invalidated the Arizona law, saying the NRVA cannot be undermined by the states.

    In a friend-of-the-court brief lodged with the Court, the League of Women Voters urges the justices to hold that the NVRA overrides states’ attempts to restrict voting.

    “States should not be allowed to play politics with the voter registration process, the key entry point for political participation in our democracy,” the League’s President Barbara Klein said in a press releaseannouncing the group’s brief.

    The Brennan Center and the Constitutional Accountability Center have also weighed in with an amicus brief urging the court to support the federal government’s constitutional authority to protect the right to vote.


  • November 15, 2012

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    For all of the grandstanding some politicians do on the virtues of American democracy, one might think that voting here would be simple and easy. Instead, as shown repeatedly here on ACSblog, it is anything but. American voters, who are more mobile than ever, have to deal with the election bureaucracies of all 50 states, which include over 13,000 election districts and 110,000 polling places nationwide. Getting registered to vote in a new location after a move can be time consuming and cumbersome. The only notable exception to the bureaucratic nightmare that is getting registered and voting in the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions is North Dakota, where citizens to not need to be registered to vote. All they need to do is show up on Election Day.

    In her book, Electoral Dysfunction, Victoria Bassetti argues that America is one of the few democracies in the world that places the burden on voters to prove that they are eligible to vote. So let’s look over our lapping shores to other lands to see how they manage the democratic process, and if there’s anything the United States can learn from their experiences.

    Our neighbors to the north and south provide us with an immediate frame of reference. In Canada voter registration is largely done by the Canadian federal government as a means of protecting the constitutional rights of Canadian citizens. The government refers to other governmental records, like tax records to keep the voter rolls continuously updated. For people that aren’t registered Canada allows for same day voter registration. The government is legally obliged to keep its voter registration list private, and information from it can only be shared with parties and candidates at the time of an election, and then only for electoral purposes. Canada also imposes strict limits on election financing, curbing the amount of money political parties can spend. Major parties like the Liberal and Conservative parties were limited to about 20 million CAD total, and in 2006 the Canadian Parliament passed a bill allowing only individuals to contribute to parties and political candidates.

  • October 31, 2012

    by Jeremy Leaming

    In a number of states, Republican lawmakers have gone to great lengths to make voting a major pain. The Department of Justice, civil liberties groups and others have successfully fought to blunt many of those efforts. Now, in addition to Republican eagerness to limit voting, Hurricane Sandy has wrought large swaths devastation on the East Coast. Not only did Sandy knock out some early voting times in several states, it has left many of them with more work to ensure they will be prepared for Election Day.

    Michael Cooper, in a piece for The New York Times, says the “obstacles are formidable. More than 8.2 million households were without power by midday Tuesday, with more than a fifth of them in swing states – a potential problem in an age when the voting process, which once consisted of stuffing paper ballots into boxes, has been electrified.”

    Cooper’s piece notes that federal law gives states the ability to choose electors on a “subsequent day,” if they fail to do so on Election Day. But “prominent election lawyer Jerry H. Goldfeder says that while it may be legally “simple,” for states to choose how they might provide more voting opportunities after Election Day, “historically, politically and logistically, it would be highly extraordinary and unique event in American history.” Goldfeder said it likely makes more sense for Congress to clarify federal law to provide for a unified response to elections impacted by terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

    Some states as Cooper notes have restored some early voting periods. (For example, Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley ordered early voting centers to reopen on Oct. 31 and extended early voting until 9 p.m. on Nov. 2 at those centers.)

  • October 22, 2012

    by Joseph Jerome

    Mitt Romney recently opened up a 7-point lead according to a Gallup tracking poll nationally over President Obama among likely voters, but the Obama campaign was hardly concerned, and not just because the Gallup poll is an outlier among a slew of national tracking polls. “We don’t care about national polls,” White House senior adviser David Plouffe explained. Why? Because while the campaign expresses “deep respect for voters in New York and Alabama” it says most states simply do not matter because “they’re red or blue.” In the pivotal swing states necessary for a victory in the contest that really matters – the race to 270 electoral votes – the Obama campaign may have built a firewall.

    Once more, the peculiarities of the Electoral College have the potential of making a mockery of our democratic process. Jamie Raskin, state senator from decidedly blue-state Maryland, argued on ACSblog that our “weird lottery” incentivizes partisan mischief and electoral corruption in a handful of states to swing elections. Already in Ohio, which pundits suggest is the top prize of the 2012 presidential election, a court battle over the state’s bizarre early voting restrictions reached the Supreme Court, and The New York Times previously accused state election officials of overt discrimination against minorities.

    The importance placed on the Electoral College also limits the scope of presidential campaigns.  In any given presidential election, in fact, two-thirds of the states will not be contested by one campaign or the other. Worse, the number of Americans whose vote actually matters is shrinking.  In 1960, there were 24 battleground states. By 2004, just thirteen. This fall, only nine states are actually being contested by the two presidential campaigns. “Every indication is that this will be the geographically narrowest campaign in modern American history,” FairVote’s Andie Levien writes