Even if the GOP hadn’t done their best to make voting a difficult process for as many people as possible, the 2012 election showed that this country is in desperate need of a civic infrastructure overhaul. Long lines, confusing ballots and questionable machinery all threaten to grind our participatory democracy to a halt.
The good news is, there are some relatively easy reforms Congress could get to work on right now that would streamline and modernize voting.
1. Reform voter registration
In places like Ohio, Florida and Virginia voters waited in line hours before casting a ballot. In some jurisdictions voters would get to the front of the line only to find out they were not on voter rolls. According to the Brennan Center, the technology and infrastructure already exists to help states modernize voter registration. They can do this by improving online registration and making registration automatic in some instances. Congress is ready to help pay for the upgrade. The Voter Empowerment Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D.N.Y) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga) would upgrade voter registration standards nationwide and expand same-day voter registration.
2. Protect election funding at the state level
Other problems at the polls came up when locations ran out of ballots or were short-staffed thanks to repeated cuts to local and government aid. Election judges, many of whom are elderly, were simply unprepared for the volume of voters and a failure to upkeep voting equipment caused problems.
In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act which helped states replace outdated voting machines. It’s time to renew that funding so states don’t have to foot the bills on their own.
3. Staff the Election Assistance Commission
In 2002, Congress set up the Election Assistance Commission, a nonpartisan federal commission created to aid local jurisdictions with things like certifying electronic voting machines or coming up with contingency plans in case of a disaster. But so far, the panel has no commissioners sitting on it, because Republicans in the Senate have blocked the nominees. Having a functioning commission might have helped states such as New York and New Jersey that found themselves scrambling to set up voting alternatives after Hurricane Sandy.
4. Expand early voting and make election day a federal holiday
Allowing people to vote early can help alleviate the pressure on Election Day and if hourly wage earners did not have to worry about losing pay while they wait to vote, those that do decide to vote on election day can avoid the before-and-after work rushes. Congress could set standards here to make sure the details of early voting are not left to partisans with interests in manipulating the system in either direction.
5. Create a FEMA for problem voting districts
Places like Florida and Ohio simply can’t seem to run an election smoothly. The Voting Rights Act addresses the racial components to these problems, but Congress could set up a national nonpartisan agency to administer elections, impose rules and standards for ballots, set registration guidelines and hash out the rules on polling times. And if all else fails and a state or a district still can’t pull it together, that agency could declare voting rights disaster areas and those elections could be monitored, much like we already do under the Voting Rights Act.
Sadly it is unlikely that the modern-day Republican party would get behind these reforms, despite the fact they they would help guarantee the party remains relevant in future elections. As we’ve seen in this last election those who want to suppress the vote depend on an electoral system that is disjointed and chaotic. Creating national standards and uniform procedures makes organized voter suppression much more difficult and would finally show Congress is serious about supporting participatory democracy.
Photo from Muffet via flickr.