As Florida continues to find ballots stashed in warehouses, it has become abundantly clear that individual states can no longer be trusted to administer free and fair elections.
It is time for the federal government to create an independent, non-partisan body charged with administering elections.
Unlike the Federal Elections Commission, whose authority is limited to the financing of campaigns, this body would be granted the following responsibilities to ensure that our elections are free and fair regardless of who you are, where you live or for whom you intend to vote:
Universalize Voter Registration
A federal voter registrar should be established to ensure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote somewhere. Every year millions of eligible citizens are kept from voting due to various rules, restrictions and barriers that different states place upon voter registration – in 2008, the number exceeded President Obama’s margin of victory.
Universal voter registration is not an alien idea, either; 84% of European countries currently have some form of universal voter registration. Nationalizing and universalizing voter registration would enfranchise millions, resulting in elections that more accurately reflected the will of the people. Moreover, if universal registration were coupled with a national ID card, as it is in many European countries, it would put concerns about voter impersonation fraud to bed.
Standardize the Ballot
This year, Connecticut’s absentee ballots were mailed without candidates listed – a legal dispute over which party would be listed first on the ballot was not resolved in time for the ballots to be printed, so voters were forced to vote on a write-in-only basis.
In Florida, ballots were up to 12 pages long, costing those who voted by mail up to $1.50 in postage, creating a confusing scanning process for in-person voters and hindering the vote tallying process in many precincts.
A standard ballot, with consistent formatting for all types of races and uniform guidelines for issues such as candidate order, would make it easier for voters to inform themselves and others about what to expect when they show up to vote.
Standardize the Polling Place
In a similar vein, our polling places themselves vary so much across the country that many citizens are unable to cast their ballot. Varying numbers of polling machines and ID restrictions create prohibitively long lines of up to five hours to cast their ballots; taking that much time out of a Tuesday is economically impossible for many voters, especially blue-collar voters (it’s easier to take time off to vote when you’re the boss).
It is time to take voting machines out of the hands of partisan Secretaries of State, and mandate that each polling location be allocated voting machines and paper ballots proportional to the number of registered voters in that precinct. And perhaps it’s time we stopped permitting partisans from owning companies that make voting machines, then we could stop worrying about machines that change your vote from Obama to Romney, or about “computer glitches” that suddenly make 1,000 early voters (in a black neighborhood, of course) vanish.
Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Chris Coons (D-DE) have co-sponsored the Fast, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act, which takes a crucial step in the right direction by providing grants for states which show that they have made voting easier and more accessible.
Moreover, while many states do a fine job of regulating activity that occurs in and near the polling place, this year the long lines that extended beyond the bounds of polling places were subject to a series of dirty tricks and attempts to confuse and suppress the votes of predominantly minority and Democratic votes. On Election Day in Virginia, conservative volunteers patrolled the long lines in urban precincts thanking voters for coming out to vote and asking them if they had brought the necessary two forms of photo ID with them (Virginia requires one form of ID and it does not have to include a photo), illegally (and in one instance, forcibly) directing eligible and now-confused voters away from their polling location.
Waiting for all 50 states to pass and enforce meaningful regulations that prevent activities such as these from occurring is a pipe dream at best; federal action is necessary to ensure that voter suppression on this scale is prohibited and prosecuted.
Establish Election Week
The decision to hold Election Day on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November was one of the biggest expansions of the franchise the United States had ever seen — in 1845.
Tuesday was picked so that farmers could make the two-day trek to and from town to vote without missing church or market day (Wednesday). However, with the advent of the car and the considerably more diverse American economy that exists today — it seems the country has changed somewhat in the past 167 years — this no longer makes sense.
To reflect the varying schedules and obligations of our diverse population, many states have increased accessibility to vote by letting citizens vote early. This practice has worked well in the states that have established it, and should be implemented nationwide. While some states offer early voting quite early (Iowans can start casting their ballots more than a month before Election Day), a national voting week would ensure that nobody’s work schedule or weekly routine could prevent them from casting a ballot, while avoiding concerns about whether we’re all really voting in the same election when some of us vote in November, and others in September (thus missing the presidential debates, among other concerns).
The United States prides itself on being the standard-bearer for modern democratic society, encouraging developing republics to model themselves after us in as many respects as possible. However, our voting system is arcane, outdated and prone to manipulation by entrenched interests; it cannot be considered a model for the rest of the world, and it is not worthy of who we are as a people and a nation, until serious changes are made.
Taking the responsibility of administering elections out of the hands of individual states, and setting a clear standard for what an American election should look like, would make our elections freer, fairer and more accurate. After a series of elections fraught with mishaps, federal action is necessary to set things right.