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The time is right for election reform

November 26, 2018

Oh, America, the country that can send its first Native women, Muslims and Latinas from Texas to Congress, while at the same time, return to the House of Representatives an avowed white supremacist and even re-elect members under indictment.

This is the same country where, in the state of Georgia, electric voting machines were sent to certain precincts with the wrong power cords, delaying voting because the machines did not work — they couldn’t be plugged in. Voters in downtown Atlanta waited three hours because only three machines had been sent for 3,000 people. This, after thousands of applications to vote were suspended because of a new law requiring an exact match of names. Leave in a middle initial or sign up by a nickname and no voting for you. All of this, on top of an aggressive purging of the voter rolls by the secretary of state in charge of the election — who, by the way, ended up being the winning GOP candidate for governor in an election so close it nearly went to a runoff.

It is the same country where not enough ballots were sent to mostly Native precincts in North Dakota. People could not mark their choices down, and that came after new voting laws made it difficult for members of Indian tribes who live on rural reservations to vote. Reports of machine malfunctions came in from a number of states, including New York, California and Arizona. A badly designed ballot in a Florida county likely cost the losing Democratic candidate votes (and this was not partisan but sheer incompetence).

These are mixed results for a country that prides itself on its citizens choosing leaders at the ballot box. Especially worth bragging about in the 2018 midterm — no matter that it took weeks to count all the votes — is the fact that the United States saw its highest voter turnout in more than 100 years. The United States Elections Project showed that some 49.3 percent of eligible voters showed up, compared to 50.4 percent back in 1914. That’s something to point to with pride.

But how can we remain proud of a system that does not work fairly for all voters. In many places in the United States, the problem seems to have been incompetence, outdated equipment and ill-trained public officials. Laws vary in states, too, so that some citizens have little access to early voting hours or voting by mail, two measures that increase turnout. Voting opportunity depends on where you live, something that seems both unfair and potentially unconstitutional.

The nation must decide to set federal standards for elections so that no partisan or ill-trained county clerk in the middle of nowhere can deprive citizens of the essential right to vote. No secretary of state should be able to manipulate the electoral system for his benefit. No byzantine systems of how to conduct elections and register people to vote should be allowed, simply because the state doesn’t change the law (see New York for an example of a terrible structure for running elections). No county clerk in Kansas should be able to move a town’s polling place out of town, away from where voters actually live.

We deserve better.

It is time for supporters of our election system to demand change. The new Democratic majority in the House already has said it wants the first legislation of the new Congress — H.R. 1 — to focus on strengthening democracy at home. The legislation would establish automatic voter registration and bring new life to the Voting Rights Act, important legislation that was weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. State legislatures would lose redistricting power — no more gerrymandering for political gain — and hand it to independent commissions.

Other parts of the bill would overturn Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that made political spending the equivalent of free speech protected by the First Amendment. The Democrats also want more disclosure of donors of outside money, public financing matches for small contributions and expanded ethics laws.

While a GOP-controlled Senate likely would ignore bold election reform, the Democrats are correct in focusing on improving the mechanics of democracy. In fact, if they want to actually make progress, they might take important parts of the broader bill and introduce more simple, targeted reforms — we’d be happy with ending gerrymandering as an important first step.

As soon as there is a president in office who actually wants every eligible person to vote and all of those votes to be counted, as well as a Senate and House that will pass election reform laws, get to work. Change the rules. Make voting more uniform across the nation — states and local jurisdictions might run elections, but the federal government has a responsibility to ensure equal access to voting and fair and nonpartisan oversight. At our state level, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is keeping her promise to seek legislation to open primaries to independent voters and allow same-day voter registration. The goal is to make voting accessible to all.

Unless we act, faith in our system of elections will be lost — and so will the notion that in this country, we all have a say in how the government is run.

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