Voting in America

We all saw the lines on television last November. A lot of us stood in them.  In Florida, in Ohio.  I saw at least a 20 minute wait on election morning as I timed a friend who went into vote while I was outside handing out Warren/Obama literature.  This was much longer than usual at my precinct.  It turns out that these are only the outward manifestations of larger problems.  President Obama has said fixing the problems is one of his priorities.  Now he can look at a couple of studies to see exactly what needs to be fixed.

Voter buttons

First the Daily Kos posted a story about the MIT study showing that black and Hispanic voters waited longer to vote than other voters.

You’d think after two hundred years (including some awkward Constitution-patching, here and there) we would finally have this “voting” thing down. Nope:

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology analysis determined that blacks and Hispanics waited nearly twice as long in line to vote on average than whites. Florida had the nation’s longest lines, at 45 minutes, followed by the District of Columbia, Maryland, South Carolina and Virginia, according to Charles Stewart III, the political science professor who conducted the analysis.

So how are states going to fix this?  Maybe by making it harder to register and then harder to vote.

…In states like Virginia, in fact, they’re still trying their level best to make sure certain people don’t have to wait in long lines to vote by making sure certain people aren’t allowed to vote at all. Newly passed legislation would:

eliminate the use of a utility bill, pay stub, bank statement, government check and Social Security card as acceptable identification that can be presented at the polls. Voters would still be able to use a voter identification card, concealed handgun permit, driver’s license and student ID card.

Well, so long as you’re still taking concealed handgun permits.

Since most of those now-banned documents are still perfectly acceptable for obtaining “real” ID’s, like drivers licenses, the possibilities for thwarting rampant voting fraud are approximately nil. The only substantive outcome is to make it ever more inconvenient for certain people (i.e. poor, elderly, and those that don’t have cars, those city-living bastards) to vote.

So I’m not sure that we can depend on states to fix their own problems.

On the heels of the MIT study comes Pew Research.  The New York Times reported on the study which looked at 17 factors.

The flaws in the American election system are deep and widespread, extending beyond isolated voting issues in a few locations and flaring up in states rich and poor, according to a major new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The group ranked all 50 states based on more than 15 criteria, including wait times, lost votes and problems with absentee and provisional ballots, and the order often confounds the conventional wisdom.

In 2010, for instance, Mississippi ranked last over all. But it was preceded by two surprises: New York and California.

The project includes an interactive tool that allows rankings by individual criteria or clusters of them.

Some states, for instance, lost very few votes because of shortcomings in voting technology and voter confusion, with the best 10 reporting failure rates of 0.5 percent or less in 2008. In West Virginia, by contrast, the rate was 3.2 percent.

I hope you will click on the interactive link and look up your state.  The study covers the 2008 and 2010 elections and will be updated with 2012 data when it is available.  Massachusetts is only ranked in the middle at 64% overall which is interesting as I would have guessed it would have been higher.

The study also covered the new trend of voting by mail.

The shift to voting by mail, which now accounts for some 20 percent of all ballots cast, tends to eliminate lines. But it has also produced new problems, especially in places where mail voting has soared because the state does not require an excuse or a new ballot request for each election. Arizona and California, where voting by mail is commonplace, had among the highest rates of problems with voter registration and absentee ballots.

In 2010, California rejected absentee ballots 0.7 percent of the time, a higher rate than any other state.

Dean C. Logan, the registrar for Los Angeles County, said the rate was partly a byproduct of the popularity of voting by mail in California and partly a function of how the state defines rejected ballots. Its definition includes ballots that voters requested but that the Postal Service returned to election officials as undeliverable.

“Voter behavior is changing and evolving,” Mr. Logan said. Young people do not sign their names as consistently as older ones, he said, and mail delivery is becoming less reliable.

He also cautioned that statewide results can mask the fact that “the elections process is extremely decentralized.”

Provisional ballots are also a potential problem according to the study.

Charles Stewart III [cited also by the Daily Kos], a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Pew adviser, said that high provisional ballot rates were an important signal of potential trouble.

“Nationwide, a bit over 1 percent of voters are given a provisional ballot,” he said. “In Arizona in 2008, the rate was 6.5 percent. In the battleground state of Ohio, it was 3.6 percent. While these numbers may seem small, in a recount or election dispute, they would be huge.”

There are lots of things to consider as we look at ways to fix things.  How can people more easily register to vote?  What kind of ID, if any, should a voter have to show?  Do we vote by mail?  Online?  In person?  How many options should voters be offered?  I don’t know how many of the issues raised by the Pew study are local and how many can be federally mandated.  I believe that the federal government may have more say if the election is for a national office and is not just a state or local election.

I hope we can tackle some of these issues before 2014 and more of them before 2016.

Professor Stewart said the study should focus attention on the infrastructure of democracy.

“Among all important areas of public policy, election administration is probably the most episodic and prone to the problem of short attention spans,” he said. “What would the world be like if we only gave intense attention to education, corrections, transportation and public health problems for a one-week period every four years?”

An Oregon mail-in ballot for a special electio...

An Oregon mail-in ballot for a special election in May 2005. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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