Time Approaches for a Federal Government ‘Push’ for States to Reform Voting Procedures

December 10, 2012

by Jeremy Leaming

During his early morning re-election speech, President Obama took note of the difficulties scores of voters faced in casting ballots this year, such as standing in lengthy, slow-moving lines for hours. Something we have to fix the president said. 

Many of the problems for voters this election year, as noted often on this blog, were created by lawmakers in a string of states apparently bent on making voting a more difficult procedure, though they cloaked the intentions in language about protecting the integrity of the vote. But a closer examination of the actions taken by those lawmakers – limiting early voting hours, clamping down on voter registration drives and implementing onerous voter ID requirements – revealed political efforts to keep certain people away from the polls, namely minorities, college students, low-income people and the elderly. See the ACS Issue Brief by Loyola law school professor Justin Levitt on many of the restrictive vote measures, which he concluded made for poor and potentially unconstitutional policy.

The Washington Post editorial board in “Repairing America’s elections,” highlighting voting difficulties in Northern Virginia, noted in part, “Poorly trained poll workers get confused by constantly changing laws and procedures. Voter registration and record-keeping are getting more high-tech, but there are still many kinks. Many states lack policies that could take some of the pressure off, such as early voting.”

The editorial reports that some in Congress, such as Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) are pushing a measure similar to the Obama administration’s educational “Race to the Top,” initiative. That measure, in part, would “dangle the possibility of grants to states that put together election reform programs” that include expansion of early voting and “more flexible registration rules ….”

Though The Post said the states should be taking actions to make voting easier, it concluded that it may be time for a “strong, careful” push by the federal government if states don’t take it upon themselves to clean things up.

Throughout the year as officials in Ohio, Florida, Texas and other states fought to protect new measures making it more difficult to vote, Victoria Bassetti, author of the Electoral Dysfunction: A Survival Manuel for American Voters, wrote and spoke frequently about the need to change the way the nation votes. In a piece for The Post, Bassetti noted that too many of the nation’s voting procedures place “the burden on the voter.”

The burdens on voters in 2012 elections included more than just long lines, they included new obstacles to obtaining proper documentation to vote, shortened voting hours, and lawmakers unwilling to budge much on the new restrictions. And some of the new and onerous voting measures were implemented in states covered by Sec. 5 of the Voting Rights Act, such as Texas and Virginia. Sec. 5 requires states with long histories of discriminating against minority voters from to gain pre-clearance from the Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. before altering their voting rules.

This election season, beyond revealing a need for voting reform in many states, provided additional evidence of the ongoing need for a strong federal law aimed at ensuring states do not try to make it harder for minorities to vote. (But Sec. 5 is under attack by individuals and groups convinced that discrimination is a thing of the past. The Supreme Court will hear a case next year that challenges the constitutionality of Sec. 5, by Alabama officials who claim the measure is no longer needed.)