ONCE THE recount was over on Monday, control of Virginia’s Senate was determined by a margin of less than a dozen votes in a special election in which a mere 20 percent of registered voters participated. This wasn’t the first time a high-stakes race depended on an unhealthily small sliver of the electorate. Maybe only so many people will ever bother with a state senate special election. But registration and turnout would be a lot higher across the board if voting in the United States weren’t a Kafkaesque exercise. Government has got to make voting easier.
The first thing politicians can do is stop trying to make it harder. GOP lawmakers should end efforts to limit access to the ballot box with restrictive and unnecessary voter identification laws, for example. Then they should fix the things the government was already doing wrong.
That’s where a report President Obama commissioned after the 2012 presidential election comes in. The commission included Mr. Obama’s top campaign lawyer — and that of Mitt Romney, his 2012 rival. The result could easily have been a collection of useless platitudes. Instead, the bipartisan panel offered a set of serious changes that could, if state and local election officials took them up, make a big difference.
About 16 million voters have either invalid or significantly inaccurate voter registration information on file. Online voter registration would encourage more people to sign up, simplify the process of switching registrations after a move, and make it a lot easier for states to compare voting rolls. More accurate registration data would directly reduce complications — and lines — on Election Day. We favor an even simpler solution — automatic, universal voter registration — but online registration would be a helpful step.
Another key recommendation is establishing or expanding early voting options. There has been a bit of partisan heat over this issue, but there shouldn’t be. Early voting is an obvious way to reduce wait times on Election Day and ensure that people with restrictive schedules can exercise their right to vote. Alternatives to voting in person on Election Day also include open absentee voting policies, though early in-person voting is more secure.
A lot of voting machines around the country are reaching the end of their lives. Instead of replacing purpose-made Rube Goldberg voting apparatuses with more of the same, local officials should find a way to use cheaper, generic hardware that people already are familiar with — tablets, for example — and focus on getting the right software for them. One impediment to doing that is that the federal government hasn’t updated its voting technology standards in years, in part because the federal Election Assistance Commission is bereft of members. It’s time for the president and the Senate to fix that.
The commission doesn’t have an answer for every problem. The root cause of so many is the bizarre way elections are run in the United States, with 8,000 jurisdictions administering their own voting systems, relying on polling place volunteers and obtaining too little guidance from the federal government. It should be little surprise that Election Day experiences are inconsistent across states. But barring more ambitious voting reform, the country’s leaders should embrace the sensible fixes the panel recommends.