How We Can Reform Our Elections

Last week's long lines and dirty tricks prove we need tougher laws to protect voting rights

  • Share
  • Read Later

USF students, many voting in their first presidential election, wait in line outside the Marshall Center in Tampa, Fl., Nov. 6, 2012.

One of the iconic images of the 2012 presidential election was also one of the most disturbing: voters waiting in line as long as nine hours to cast their ballot. Simple fact: if you have to pack both lunch and dinner before you go to the polling place, there is something seriously wrong with your democracy.

It was not just the lines. Many states enacted overly onerous voter ID laws that kept World War II veterans and elderly nuns from voting. Then there were the dirty tricks: robo-calls telling people the election had been postponed until Wednesday and reports of voters being called and told that they can vote over the phone.

It is time for the nation to pass a tough federal Voters Bill of Rights. There is a lot of attention — for good reason — to high-profile causes like campaign finance reform and putting an end to partisan gerrymandering. But as last week’s election showed, there is an urgent need to focus more on the simple mechanics of running elections.

(MORE: For Obama, Survival is the New Winning)

The long lines are a good place to start, and some members of Congress realize it. Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the senior Democratic member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told the congressional newspaper The Hill that “we need to address this problem,” and compared this year’s voting to “elections in a third-world country.”

A Voters’ Bill of Rights could impose federal standards on the states that would drive down waiting times. It could require states to have lengthy early voting periods in all federal elections. And it could set out minimum standards for how many voting machines a state must have for every thousand voters assigned to a polling place.

A Voters’ Bill of Rights could also make it a federal crime to deceive potential voters about the time, place, or manner of an election. This is something the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, a bill sponsored by New York Senator Chuck Schumer, calls for. There would be fewer robo-calls telling people the wrong day for the election and fewer fliers misrepresenting voter ID requirements if people felt they might go to jail for their deceptions.

A federal Voters’ Bill of Rights could also do an end-run around state laws that make it unnecessarily expensive or difficult to get an ID that will be accepted at the polls. The law could establish a federal voter ID, available easily and for free, that states would be required to accept in federal elections. A Voters’ Bill of Rights could also regulate how states purge voters from their rolls. At least since Florida’s infamous 2000 voting roll purge, states have been wrongly removing eligible voters from the rolls.

(MORE: How to Solve the Voter ID Debate)

A key reason that elections are run so badly is that in most states political partisans are in charge. This was a key problem with the 2000 election meltdown in Florida. Katherine Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State, both served as co-chair of George W. Bush’s election campaign and made the election rules. This year, Ohio’s Secretary of State, Jon Husted, made decisions — from trying to limit early voting hours to trying to make it harder to cast provision ballots — that critics saw as driven by political partisanship.

A federal Voters’ Bill of Rights could press the states to put non-partisan managers in charge of elections. There is a good model for this in the Government Accountability Board, which runs Wisconsin elections. Members of the board are selected in ways designed to minimize political partisanship and they are expected to put fair elections ahead of politics.

The odds of enacting election reform right away may not be good. Republicans, who will continue to control the House of Representatives, have opposed measures making it easier to vote and have pushed for tougher voter ID and voting roll purge laws. Previous attempts to enact federal protections for voting have languished.

In fact, it is more likely that, in the short term, voting rights will be rolled back. The Supreme Court announced last week that it will consider a constitutional challenge to the Voting Rights Act. If the challenge succeeds — a ruling is expected by June — the court could strip away important protections for black, Latino, and other minority voters.

In time, though, the pressure for election reform is likely to grow — for appearances’ sake, if nothing else. It will be hard for the United States to continue to hold itself out as a model of democracy for the world, a role that Americans are rightly proud of, when the world sees American voters waiting for four, five, and six hours, and more, to cast a ballot.


We can start with voter ID laws.  The accusation that this limits the ability to anyone to vote is a complete lie.  I firmly believe we have massive voter fraud in this country  There is absolutely no reason anyone and everyone has no ID and if they don't I should think they could be provided with a picture ID that would suffice for a very small fee..  We all have ID's and are asked for them on a regular basis for purchasing booze, cigarettes, to get into movies, while driving and stopped by police, to cash a check or other banking transactions, to buy things with credit cards.  You could be walking down the street or riding in a car with someone and be asked for an ID for one reason or another by police.  The only reason I can think of that one party keeps screaming about it being unfair makes me VERY suspicious that they must have something to hide.  Just do it and get it over with. Why do we let things become harder than they have to be?  It isn't rocket science and from some of the behavior I saw from the Democrats during this last election in PA and other states I strongly suspect this election was no on the up and up.

I also have to say no one should be able to change the rules during an election by the number of days and so forth?  I think both parties have done questionable things during elections.  We need to figure it out before the next one.  Get a mail in ballot and figure out a way to force ID's with those as well.  I don't trust anyone involved with the voter processes anymore. Everything has been corrupted.  How sad.


Seen from a European perspective (I'm a Brit now living in France) the US voters' rights question seems bizarre in the extreme. In a democracy, everyone who is eligible should have the right to a vote (and only one vote) and no-one else should have that right. It's not that complicated, but it absolutely needs to be taken out of partisan hands. So it seems to me that it must be something organised at a Federal level, perhaps by the issue of voting cards based on data such as birth, tax or census records.


It's not like you can say Florida can't vote anymore. What in the world is up with that state. I can only imagine that there was a lot of monkey business at hand. So since they have the right to vote then let them do all early voting starting one month before the election. 4 days to get the returns is ridiculous. The Gov. tried to shorten the time the people could early vote because it is though early voters are democrats and who knows what else. There was that guy that the Sec. of State (R) hired to sign up voters who just threw them away. 


What the heck has been happening in some of these states...i.e... Florida, Ohio, etc...?  You have got to be kidding me, with what was going on in Ohio... but especially Florida, with their Republican Governor.

Can you say... win at all costs including... out and out lying and cheating !

Cutting down voting hours to make it harder for people to vote... robo calls telling people to vote on Wednesday.  How desperate are the republican/tea-partiers/christian evangelicals ?!?!?!?

I can hear it now... "at least our country is not as bad as Iran, or Russia, Venezuela, etc... in the way they handle their voting."

Good grief...

Yes... "Please" make it a "federal crime" to defraud voters about the what/when/where, etc... of voting.