How We Can Reform Our Elections

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

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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.