Put aside tears for voting reform

A video showing a 4-year old crying because she is tired of “Bronco Bama and Mitt Romney,” with her mother telling her it will be OK because the election would soon be over, went viral recently. It likely reflected many others’ feelings. Living in a swing state, this young Coloradan lived with more campaign ads, almost all negative, than the rest of us can imagine.

After Election Day comes and goes, it’s tempting to forget about voting and elections.

But getting to Wednesday doesn’t mean it’s over. There’s work to be done to improve how people vote and how votes count.

This year, as with every year, there will be recounts. They always occur, and then our system is truly tested. Will laws and procedures be followed? Will those overseeing the recounts be even-handed?

Our system, unlike the election administration system in most democracies, often invests enormous power in officials who are not professional government employees but instead hold elective or appointive offices. While these individuals can be scrupulously fair, this is not always the case.

Election bias and fraud by those running elections has always been far more common and a far greater problem than anything individual voters do.

In Florida in 2000, Secretary of State Katherine Harris oversaw a purge of the voting rolls that incorrectly excluded tens of thousands of voters, the majority black or Hispanic. This, by itself, changed the outcome of the presidential election. Later Harris, who was the co-chair of George W. Bush’s Florida campaign, made decisions during the recount that benefitted Bush and heartened his brother, then Florida’s governor.

And then there’s the approach of simply stuffing ballot boxes, something both parties used to do on a fairly regular basis. This year, a county election worker in Oregon was arrested because “the woman filled in a straight Republican ticket on the ballots where preferences had been left blank by voters.”

Telling these and other stories should not just be something political junkies do. We can take a hard look at our election system and make reforms that promote the integrity of the system and to make voting as accessible as possible.

One start would be to change when we vote. Tuesday voting is a remnant of our country’s rural past. Farmers would come into town to sell their crops, buy needed supplies and vote. Political parties would hold parades and bonfires, handing out liquor and creating a party atmosphere.

The United States is no longer a predominantly agricultural economy. But still Election Day continues to be on Tuesday, posing problems for people with little flexibility in their schedules. Particularly in states where it is hard to vote early or absentee, working people have to shoehorn in voting, going early or trying to vote after work, when they need to take care of their children.

Here, too, partisanship matters. In 2004, Republican officials placed fewer voting machines in Ohio’s urban and campus precincts, leading to long lines lasting hours, which some voters had to leave.

Ohio now has a Republican secretary of state who was so overt in helping his party that, until stopped by the courts, he voted with county election officials to make early voting available in Republican areas and unavailable in Democratic ones.

In 2012, Florida operated under laws limiting early voting, including the Sunday before Election Day, when black churches traditionally took “Souls to the Polls.” Florida’s very diverse Miami-Dade County shut down its early voting this Sunday because, officials said, the crowds were too large. Last year, Mainers brought back Election-Day registration, but Republicans may mount new attempts to limit voting.

The United States needs a new voting rights movement for the 21st century, aimed at easy access to the ballot for all eligible voters.

Because elections are a key way citizens exercise power, this agenda for democracy should include nonpartisan election administration, weekend voting, better information systems tracking voters, Election Day registration everywhere and easier early voting.

These key steps won’t cure all election-related ills or stop all the crying, but at least they bring greater fairness and strengthen democracy.

Amy Fried recently co-edited and contributed research to an issue of the New England Journal of Political Science focused on voting law politics. The issue is available athttp://nepsanet.org/journal/current-issue/

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.