Sen. Coons and Rep. Miller: We HAVE To Fix Our Election System

Yesterday, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) and U.S. Representative George Miller (D-Calif.) both introduced federal legislation to address the long lines, confusion and other problems that many voters experienced at the polls on Election Day.  My colleague Tova Wang documents many of these problems—nine-hour lines in some polling places, registered voters unable to find their names on the poll books, poll workers insisting on forms of identification not required under state law or enjoined by the courts—in her post-election report, 2012 Election Lessons Learned: How Voters Stood Up Against Suppression, ID and Intimidation. 

President Obama was right to say, in his acceptance speech on Election Night, “We have to fix that.”  This election came within a hairsbreadth of turning into another 2000-style crisis for the legitimacy of our democracy.  With all the problems voters experienced and the thousands of provisional ballots in battleground states, a closer margin in just one or two states could have easily resulted in another Bush v. Gore nightmare. 

We have to do better, and I’m glad to see Senator Coons and Representative Miller taking initial steps to put this on Congress’ agenda.  There are encouraging signs that the public will is strongly supportive of the need for improvements in our electoral system.  According to a new poll by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, 88 percent of those who voted in the 2012 election support the creation of national standards for voting, including the hours polls are open, who is eligible to vote, and the design of ballots.  This includes majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Naturally, a lot of attention is focused on early voting.  The state with the single worst problems of long lines – Florida – cut back its early voting hours for 2012, even though (actually, make that precisely because) almost half of Florida’s African Americans had used early voting in 2008.  So, national standards to expand early voting options would be a sensible step forward. 

But creating a 21st century election system requires us to solve other long-standing problems as well.  Our antiquated system of voter registration is a key starting place.  In the 2008 election, an estimated 2 to 3 million registered voters were prevented from voting because of various administrative problems.  In our highly mobile society, the need for voters to update their registration whenever they move creates problems for thousands of voters on Election Day, including delays at the polls and extensive use of provisional ballots that may never be counted.

Voter registration should become portable and permanent for persons who move within a state, by automatic updates to registration records as citizens change their address. Because all states now are required to have statewide voter registration databases, there should be no need for persons to register anew each time they move within a state.  Online registration that allows voters to update their address can also help with this problem, although it is not the entire solution. 

A comprehensive solution to registration problems, however, requires the option of same-day (or Election Day) registration, allowing eligible persons to register and vote on the same day.  Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia, have now adopted same-day registration in order to ensure that eligible voters are not turned away because of errors with their registrations, confusion over name changes or address changes, or mistaken purges.  Same-day registration cuts down on the need for provisional ballots, while increasing voter participation.  It is particularly helpful to allow same-day registration during the early voting period, so that there are multiple days when voters can use this one-step process. The convenience and accessibility of same-day registration should be available to voters throughout the country.

In the wake of the 2012 election, the public is ready as never before for solutions to modernize our election system and ensure that voting is free, fair and accessible. Let’s hold the President and our other elected leaders to the pledge that “We have to fix that.”