A Better Vote

Sunday, November 9, 2008

THE MILLIONS of Americans who participated in Tuesday's historic presidential election should take a bow. From waiting in lines way too long to questioning challenges to their right to cast a ballot, voters showed remarkable persistence and patience. The need for such forbearance, though, suggests that more must be done to reform the electoral process so that no citizen is excluded from this most fundamental right of democracy.

Already lessons are emerging on what works and what doesn't. Most striking is the apparent popularity and success of early voting. States that allowed voters to go to the polls as early as two weeks before Election Day experienced fewer delays and problems. As the New York Times reported, early voting provided important wiggle room to both voters (able to clarify eligibility issues) and election officials (able to trouble-shoot equipment). More important, studies have shown that early voting results in greater participation. Thirty-two states allow some version of early voting, and the holdouts shouldn't wait for Congress to prod them to act.

Similarly, it's time to rethink another vestige of an earlier era -- a voter registration system that not only prevents people from voting but causes myriad troubles for election officials. Without question, the biggest headaches this past election stemmed from voters wrongly purged from state rolls or election offices swamped with fraudulent applications. There's a growing clamor by voting rights advocates to shift the onus on registering from the individual to government. Not only would this remove the single biggest obstacle to voting (consider that in 2004, 28 percent of eligible Americans were not registered to vote), but it would make manipulation of the system harder. A proposal by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law envisions states building registries through such existing databases as tax records and lists of licensed drivers. Voters who move wouldn't lose their rights, and election officials wouldn't spend the crucial weeks before elections having to deal with the administrative headaches of new, duplicate or phony applicants.

Figuring out the specifics of universal registration is tricky and will need careful study. State election officials are right to be leery of overly prescriptive measures by the federal government. What works in Los Angeles is probably not needed in Bismarck, N.D., where, incidentally, voters don't have to even register. All of the country, though, would benefit from a discussion of these voting issues -- well before the next big election.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company