During his victory speech, President Obama surprised and delighted a lot of observers with an offhand reference to fixing our voting problems. After noting that people had waited in line for a very long time, he drew applause when he said: “By the way, we have to fix that.”
Good idea. Let’s do it.
It turns out that there are plenty of things Obama and Dems could try to do on the federal level to fix our voting problems — which seemed to disproportionately impact their core constituencies. I asked Larry Norden, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice, which closely monitors voting problems and voter suppression, what solutions they might pursue. Here are his suggestions:
* Require modernization of registration at the state level. One of the big problems voters face is glitches involving registration. Would-be voters are told they aren’t registered in the right place; their address hasn’t been properly updated; their name is misspelled; they’ve been wrongly removed from the rolls; etc. Requiring automation at the state level would reduce such problems. State agencies would automate in a way that integrates them electronically; any time you update your info with one agency, it automatically gets updated with state election offices.
* Mandate a uniform early voting period. The president and Congress could pass a law requiring every state to allow early voting, say, during the weekend preceding federal elections. Increasing the voting period is a good way to reduce the crunch at the polls on Election Day — and the myriad problems that result.
* Set standards for voting machine access per capita. The federal government could establish a uniform set of standards for federal elections requiring a minimum number of voting machines, and proper geographic distribution of polling places, based on population. That would ensure more equitable access to the voting booth, and prevent some areas from experiencing dramatically worse delays than others.
* Establish a consumer product database for voting machines: The feds could create a database that tracks the performance of various brands and types of voting machine, one that could establish the track record of problems any particular type of machine experiences. That would enable localities to be more discerning in picking machines and to better prepare for any problems that might arise. “We have a database for auto issues and a database of problems with airplanes,” Norden says. “We don’t have one for voting machines.”
* Strengthen the Election Assistance Commission. Incredibly, even as we were heading into a federal election, the Election Assistance Commission remained effectively dysfunctional and without commissioners or a permanent executive director. Republicans have tried to abolish it. The EAC is the independent bipartisan agency designed to offer guidance to localities on how to ensure smooth voting. The agency is supposed to offer updated voting machine standards — and Norden says many jurisdictions are awaiting them — but it hasn’t yet. Dems could demand a bipartisan push to strengthen the agency.
Sure, such moves would likely draw protests from Republicans who would claim the feds have no business trampling on states. But with memories of severe and widespread voting problems fresh in people’s minds — problems that threaten the franchise itself — pushing for a major overhaul might even be good politics.