How to make voting easy, efficient, fair

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama introduced Desiline Victor, who, at 102 years old, had waited in line three hours to vote in North Miami, Fla.

The president lauded Victor’s commitment to democracy, but he left out a key fact about her hardship: Compared to some voters, she hadn’t stood in line all that long.

In 2008, for example, students at Ohio’s Kenyon College waited as long as 10 hours to vote, with some casting ballots at 4 a.m.

The 2000 election meltdown in Florida pulled the curtain back on our dysfunctional system of voting, offering a primer on just about everything wrong with American elections, from burdensome voter registration to faulty vote tabulation.

The crisis inspired repeated efforts at reform. A few, such as the Help America Vote Act of 2002 — which, among other things, provided funds for better voting machines — even made a modest difference. Yet three presidential elections after the 2000 fiasco, the basic mechanics of our democracy remain deeply flawed.

One reason so little has changed is that plenty of powerful people prefer a system that makes it hard to vote. But there have been some real reforms in the states, many won with bipartisan support, and there is room for well-crafted compromises.

Obama has created the nonpartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by Robert Bauer, a Democratic lawyer who served as his campaign counsel, and Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican lawyer who was counsel to the Mitt Romney campaign.

One obvious issue they should address is that, in many states, political partisans are in charge of elections. In many states, overseeing elections is not about encouraging eligible voters to cast ballots or making sure that every valid ballot is counted. It is instead an opportunity to interpret the rules to favor one party over the other.

The nation’s byzantine system of voter registration is also desperately in need of an upgrade. In most democracies, the government takes an active role in registering eligible voters and working to keep registrations up to date.

The United States, by contrast, has a balky, state-based system of self-registration that presents significant obstacles to prospective voters.

Voter rolls — where those who register are listed — are also a problem. Each state has its own roll, and officials exercise wide discretion in aiding — or undermining — voters.

In many states, voters use electronic voting machines that don’t produce a paper record of votes cast. Without paper confirmation, it’s impossible to know for sure that the results reported electronically accurately reflect voters’ choices.

There is always the possibility of a digital glitch or that an election official or hacker has tampered with the machine. A team of Princeton University researchers has showed how anyone with access to a particular electronic voting machine could steal an election in less than one minute.

Vote suppression, which is frequently aimed at minority communities, continues to be a challenge — and could be a greater one now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act.

We need tougher penalties for those who use threats or other tactics — such as intentionally circulating false information about the locations and hours of polling places — to try to prevent others from voting.

There are still too many obstacles for people living overseas, particularly members of the military, who want to vote. According to an Overseas Vote Foundation report released in January, about 22 percent of military voters and 17 percent of overseas civilians didn’t receive ballots in 2012.

The Presidential Commission on Election Administration must work for all eligible voters whose democratic rights are thwarted — in so many ways — by a badly broken system.

Adam Cohen is the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.”

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