In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama introduced Desiline Victor, who, at 102 years old, had waited in line three hours to vote in North Miami, Fla. The president lauded Victor’s commitment to democracy, but he left out a key fact about her hardship: Compared to some voters, she hadn’t stood in line all that long. In 2008, for example, students at Ohio’s Kenyon College waited as long as 10 hours to vote.
The 2000 election meltdown in Florida pulled the curtain back on our dysfunctional system of voting, offering a primer on just about everything wrong with American elections, from burdensome voter registration to faulty vote tabulation. The crisis inspired repeated efforts at reform. A few, such as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 … made a modest difference. Yet three presidential elections after the 2000 fiasco, the basic mechanics … remain deeply flawed.
One reason so little has changed, clearly, is that plenty of powerful people prefer a system that makes it hard to vote. But there have been some real reforms in the states, many won with bipartisan support, and there is room for well-crafted compromises. Improving elections may not be easy, but it is possible.
As the president recognized, long lines … are a good place to start. Every four years, CNN and other … networks blanket the airwaves with grim images of voters waiting in the hot sun or driving rain. While other voting problems quickly get arcane — should officials count provisional ballots cast at the right polling place but the wrong precinct? — it takes no specialized knowledge to understand that a five-hour wait to vote is unacceptable. It’s similarly no great secret that, as a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recently confirmed, blacks and Hispanics wait longer than whites, poor people longer than the well-off.
When we look beyond poll lines, however, it becomes apparent how many other aspects of the election system need to be reformed. Washington — or at least one corner of it — is now giving it another look. Obama has created the nonpartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by Robert Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who served as his campaign counsel, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who was counsel to the Mitt Romney campaign.
One obvious issue they should address is that, in many states, political partisans are in charge of elections. In 2000, many Americans were shocked to learn that the official who supervised voting in Florida, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, was also co-chair of George W. Bush’s state campaign. In many states, overseeing elections is not about encouraging eligible voters to cast ballots or making sure that every valid ballot is counted. It is instead an opportunity to interpret the rules to favor one party over the other. In 2004, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Kenneth Blackwell, issued rulings that were widely criticized as blatant attempts to aid the Republican cause. By 2008, Ohio had a Democratic secretary of state — and Republicans were equally unhappy with her decisions.
The nation’s byzantine system of voter registration is also desperately in need of an upgrade. In most democracies, the government takes an active role in registering eligible voters and working to keep registrations up to date. The United States, by contrast, has a balky, state-based system of self-registration that presents significant obstacles to prospective voters. The effect on elections is considerable. Only about 68 percent of Americans are registered, compared with 93 percent of Canadians. The CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project estimated that in 2000, 1.5 million to 3 million votes were lost due to registration problems.
Voter rolls — where those who register are listed — are also a problem. Each state has its own roll, and officials exercise wide discretion in aiding — or undermining — voters. In 2000, Florida conducted an infamous pre-election purge of its voter roll that removed as many as 12,000 eligible voters. In the presidential election years since, including 2012, there have been pitched legal battles between state election officials and voting-rights groups over disenfranchising eligible voters through purges.
In many states, voters use electronic voting machines that don’t produce a paper record of votes cast. Without paper confirmation, it’s impossible to know for sure that the results reported electronically accurately reflect voters’ choices. There is always the possibility of a digital glitch or that an election official or hacker has tampered with the machine. A few years back, a team of Princeton University researchers showed how anyone with access to a particular electronic voting machine could steal an election in less than one minute. In addition, far too little attention is given to ballot design, despite Palm Beach County’s infamous “butterfly ballot,” which in the 2000 election exemplified how a poorly devised ballot can confuse voters and even change the outcome of an election.
Vote suppression, which is frequently aimed at minority communities, continues to be a challenge — and could be a greater one now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. We need tougher penalties for those who use threats or other tactics — such as intentionally circulating false information about the locations and hours of polling places — to try to prevent others from voting.
There are still too many obstacles for people living overseas, particularly members of the military, who want to vote. According to an Overseas Vote Foundation report released in January, about 22 percent of military voters and 17 percent of overseas civilians didn’t receive ballots in 2012.
Desiline Victor is a powerful symbol of the flaws of American democracy, but she is a limited one. She may have waited hours to vote, but she was registered and she was able to cast a ballot; presumably, it counted. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration needs to ease the burden on Victor. But it must also work for all the other eligible voters whose democratic rights are thwarted — in so many ways — by a badly broken system.