“I want to thank every American who participated in this election whether you voted for the very first time or waited in line for a very long time. By the way, we have to fix that.” ~ President Barack Obama, election night 2012
Yes, Mr. President, we do have to fix that. In tonight’s State of the Union address, it would be refreshing to hear the President at least broach this issue. His speech will focus on the economy and jobs, immigration, education, climate change, energy policy, and gun-control legislation. However, in light of the obstacles many Americans overcame last November to cast their vote, national election reform merits some attention.
Our nation is supposed to be the shining beacon of democracy around the world. When we help emerging democracies set up their election process, we require that they follow a set of rules for fair and open elections and that all their citizens have the opportunity to vote. Yet, in many respects, we fall short of achieving those goals in our own country—unreliable voting machines, untrained poll workers, onerous voter registration guidelines, long lines to vote that caused people to miss hours of work, and draconian voter ID laws.
There were many attempts to prevent people from voting in last November’s election. Most of these tactics were devised in the name of preventing in-person voter fraud, of which there is very little documented evidence in this country. Instead, what we saw were voter suppression efforts, some quite blatant.
In Texas, SB-14 required a photo ID to vote. What is curious about this is that while a gun license was on the list of acceptable forms of photo ID, a student ID was not. The Department of Justice rejected SB-14 in August, finding that it violated Section 5 under the federal Voting Rights Act. Or in Pennsylvania, where Republican House Leader Mike Turzai publicly announced: ” Voter ID which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania. Done.” These were Turzai’s exact words. There are countless other examples.
A friend of mine had a terrible experience at her polling site in Queens. It was disorganized, the poll workers were not trained well and none could speak English. Voters had questions to which they couldn’t get answers and confusion sparked frustration for those attempting to cast a ballot. Her experience was highly negative. It is beneficial to have Spanish-speaking poll workers available for those who do not speak English; however, it is important that they be able to communicate in both languages.
The long lines reported at polling sites in Florida and Ohio were disheartening and inspiring: Disheartening because these people spent too much of their day waiting in line, many missing hours of work, resulting in diminshed wages; inspiring because they were standing up for their right to vote and intent on making their voices heard. They felt that someone was trying to prevent them from exercising that right, and by their willingness to wait, they said. “Oh, no, you won’t.”
Currently, states control elections. The take-away from all the confusion, inconvenience, and inconcistencies across districts in the United States this past November, and leading up to it, is that the election of presidents and members of Congress should be nationalized. Every state should follow the same guidelines for voter registration, voter identification, Election Day protocol, and be required to use the same type of voting machine. This consistency could go a long way in creating a fairer, more easily understood, transparent, and streamlined election system. Alas, it takes a great amount of will, effort, and money to produce this kind of change, but it is a worthy goal.
The President should address election reform this evening, if only briefly. It is an important issue. I highly recommend Alexander Keyssar’s book The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States. It is a stark reminder of how important the right to vote is and how fearlessly many people fought to secure that right, a right that too many Americans take for granted today and some are set on suppressing.