While President Obama was delivering his victory speech in the early hours of Wednesday, Nov. 7, people were still standing in line in Florida to vote. Thousands had waited hours to vote in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio, some in the cold, some giving up wages to do so. In a spontaneous aside — “by the way, we have to fix that” — the president acknowledged the unnecessary hardship of casting a vote in the United States and established a goal that he now has an obligation to address.
The long lines can be shortened with commitments from Washington, as well as state and local governments, but they are just the most glaring symptom of a deeply broken democratic process. In too many states, it’s also needlessly difficult to register to vote. States controlled by Republicans continue to erect partisan impediments to participation. And the process for choosing a candidate remains bound to unlimited and often secret campaign donations that are bound to lead to corruption.
“Fixing that” can start with the following actions:
MAKE IT EASIER TO VOTE Voting in the United States is controlled by a widely varying patchwork of state, county and local laws. Many election boards are poorly financed or run by dysfunctional partisans, unable to quickly fix broken scanners or touch screens. Some state lawmakers have no interest in making the process easier, believing that too few polling places or other impediments make it harder for minorities or poor people to participate.
This is where Congress can play a role. It has the power to establish a nonpartisan federal elections board to maintain a national registration database, mandate the choice of voting machines and set standards for counting provisional ballots. A federal law, such as those proposed by Representatives George Miller of California and John Lewis of Georgia, could require a clear early-voting period, removing the issue as a political football in states like Florida and Ohio, and standards for absentee voting.
Congress also can provide financial incentives to the states to do the job right. A bill introduced recently by Senator Christopher Coons, a Democrat of Delaware, would give grants to states that make registration easy, including allowing same-day registration; allow early voting; require no excuses for voting absentee; properly train poll workers; and provide sufficient polling places.
But states don’t have to wait for a resolution to the inevitable partisan struggles over these bills. Seventeen states already send electronic registration data from motor vehicle departments to election agencies, and 10 allow people to register online. These paperless systems have the potential to enroll significantly more people.
REMOVE THE BARRIERS The Republican drive to keep Democratic-leaning groups from voting, through methods like voter ID requirements, failed miserably this year and may have produced a backlash among minority voters, who turned out in large numbers. It’s time for Republicans to give up this misguided and offensive effort. And, if they don’t, Mr. Obama should make a national effort to pressure them now that he has no personal stake in it.
DILUTE THE POWER OF MONEY Unlimited contributions aren’t going away, even though many outside Republican groups lost this year. A bill introduced by House Democrats would sever the informal relationships between “super PACs” and the candidates they support, and use federal matching money to encourage small contributions to presidential and Congressional candidates. It also remains vital for Congress to pass the Disclose Act and eliminate the use of secret campaign donations.
Ultimately, only a constitutional amendment can counter the misbegotten Supreme Court assertion that money is speech and thus can play an unlimited role in American politics.