Elections Reveal Continued Need for Voting Reform

November 13, 2012

by LaShawn Y. Warren

As we move past the 2012 elections and turn our eyes toward a host of pressing political, social, and economic issues, we must not lose sight of the continuing voting challenges unearthed by these elections. While significant progress has been made to expand access to the ballot box, we cannot ignore the persistent attempts to thwart participation through onerous photo ID requirements and other voting restrictions. Last week’s elections clearly demonstrated just how much more improvement is needed. Poorly trained poll workers, machine breakdowns, and inaccurate voter registration lists produced long lines that forced voters to wait hours simply to vote.

In Florida, voters were still waiting in line at two in the morning, as President Obama ended his victory speech. This was in addition to arbitrary rules for in-person absentee balloting, voting machines paper jams, and election officials in one Florida county informing voters they could vote through Wednesday! Fortunately, this was not a close election and a dramatic replay of 2000 was avoided, but the potential for electoral chaos remains systemic in the administration of our elections. As a key battleground state, the spotlight is frequently on voting issues in Florida, but these types of problems occur over and over again across the nation. 

In a country that leads the world in the development of trend setting technology, it is difficult to imagine why our elections remain so antiquated. “We’re the greatest democracy in the world,” Tom Brokaw said, covering yet another election night. “But when voting time comes, we do everything but get a candle and a nightgown and walk in somewhere and make a mark with a sharp stick of some kind.  It's crazy.” It is more than crazy; it is shameful. Voting is essential to our constitutional order and the health of our democracy. It is central to the essence of citizenship. We should pride ourselves in making it easy for citizens to participate in the political process.

I had the opportunity to spend Election Day fielding complaints and questions as part of the Election Protection hotline. The hotline received more than 80,000 calls from concerned voters, and it was tremendously rewarding helping individuals exercise their right to vote.  It was also incredibly discouraging. The maze of procedural rules and logistical barriers that have been put in place in order to vote is astonishing, and often requires a lawyer to unravel. 

We have an alarming patchwork of rules governing our right to vote across this nation. An unregistered voter in Iowa need only show up at her polling place with a form of identification on Election Day in order to register and vote.  The same unregistered voter in Florida loses the right to vote.  More problematic, our election regulations vary not just from state to state, but county to county. As ACS Board Member and Ohio State University law school Professor Dan Tokaji has termed it, our elections suffer from a system of “hyper-decentralization.” This has produced not a shining example of federalism at work, but rather a tangled mess of problems that demand to be addressed even as this election fades from view.

Many of these problems can be fixed. Passed in the wake of the 2000 election, the Help America Vote Act was a step in the right direction in updating and modernizing our voting procedures, but more needs to be done to secure the franchise. Harnessing developing technology, and establishing uniform voting requirements for election administration, could go a long way toward ensuring public confidence in our democratic process. We also must invest more resources in our election system. A little bit of investment will pay large dividends down the road.

On election night President Obama thanked Americans of all stripes and all parties for participating in the election, whether they were first time voters or “waited in line for a very long time.”  “By the way,” Obama quickly added, “we have to fix that.” It would be a tragedy to continue to disfranchise voters when simple changes can be made to ensure a smooth, less cumbersome, and more inclusive election system.