6 Things We Need To Do To Repair America's Crumbling Democracy
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2. Can We Now Have Modern Elections?
Progressives want millions more people to vote. But those voters must be accommodated by the process, not impeded and tripped up at various stages of the vote.
Anyone who has looked at how elections are run outside the U.S. knows how backward key pillars of our election system are. Across the country, how voters register, how their files are managed, how they cast ballots, how their votes are counted or rejected, varies. Some states run elections uniformly from county to county but others don’t. Too many key counties in swing states use voting machines that can’t do recounts. These nuts and bolts are not a mess everywhere, but too much of the process doesn’t measure up to 21st-century standards.
There are recent reports—like Harper’s November cover story— telling readers to worry that 2012’s votes will be electronically stolen. That’s troubling, to be sure, but the same week that issue hit the newsstands came a report by academics at CalTech/MIT finding that several million votes have been lost in each recent presidential race by more mundane means: due to voter registration bureaucracy, poll worker error and uncounted ballots. That’s not a political conspiracy. That’s an underperforming system.
We can do better at both the beginning and the end of the process. Consider voter registration in Canada, where the federal government compiles and updates eligible voter lists. They don’t have different state deadlines, forms, ID laws, etc. In an era when the government and private sector already has everyone’s personal information, it’s absurd that eligible citizens must jump through bureaucratic hoops to register and to vote.
Part of the problem with modernizing voter registration is that elections have been among the least funded areas of government. Progressives will argue over whether government should enroll all eligible voters—as the Brennan Center suggests—or draw up voter lists and tell voters to take the last step, as the Pew Center on the States suggests. Either way, our voter registration system is an outdated outlier among modern democratic nations.
But it’s not just registration that’s inefficient. The actual machinery of voting is becoming increasingly obsolete with every election cycle. Congress’ last appropriation for voting technology was in 2002. How many nationwide information technology businesses rely on computers that are a decade old and stored in cold, drafty warehouses?
Here the solution will require a paradigm shift—starting with bringing an end to government reliance on a monopolistic and secretive private sector voting machinery industry. Suffice it to say that the firms that made off like bandits after Congress’ 2002 legislation have since been decimated by a federal oversight board’s failure to certify many of their products—often for good reason, as many paperless systems were found to be unreliable. The industry is in shambles today, producing little innovation. That lapse is an opportunity.
The technical answer to the worst electronic systems that flooded states after 2002—as seen in states like California—has been to phase out paperless systems, or only use them in very limited ways, such as for the handful of people with disabilities who show up in local polling places. The most reliable systems use a mix of hand-marked paper ballots and electronic counters. If the computers fail, then paper ballots can be recounted.
Every dozen or so years, Congress passes a major piece of voting legislation. It did that in 1993 with the " Motor Voter" law, expanding registration options, and in 2002 in response to Florida’s presidential recount debacle. That threshold is approaching. The shift that is needed is getting the private sector out of the voting machinery business—or to vastly limit its involvement to building better systems based on work done by universities and non-partisan institutions. The voting machinery mess that we have in too many states today is due to local government officials being wined and dined by lobbyists selling shoddy systems after 2002. A handful of counties have developed their own voting systems. That’s the precedent to follow. Voting needs to be in public hands.