By Joe Harris
It has been a dozen years, and three presidential elections, since a contentious 5-to-4 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court handed the presidency to George W. Bush. The 2012 general election cycle is shaping up to be a squeaker, with a razor thin margin possible for deciding the next Occupant of 1400 Pennsylvania Avenue. As is typical in many cases of much-needed reform, meaningful change has been paralyzed—for going on a decade, now— by the familiar nemesis to democracy: Partisan politics.
In state after state, efforts to tackle some of the more flawed elements of elections—voter identification and the accompanying fraud—have stalled over questions of whether honest efforts are in reality disguised attempts to prevent the disadvantaged and minorities from voting. The laudatory labors of a 2005 bipartisan commission led by former President Jimmy Carter (Democrat) and former Secretary of State James Baker (Republican) found that in Florida alone, 140,000 voters were also registered in four other states—46,000 of them in New York City. (Among these, 1,700 had registered for absentee ballots in their other state-of-record, with no subsequent investigation.)
The Carter-Baker Commission suggested reforms that included impartial administration of elections, and uniform photo ID rules, but little was done once the partisans had picked clean the bones of bipartisanship. Experts say that although there have been election irregularities in the past—like rules that excluded immigrants or African-Americans from voting—things have gotten worse since the 2000 election.X
Unlike nearly every other nation with free elections, ours is administered by partisan officials who are elected as candidates of their parties. (It was in this spirit that our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, said, “If there’s a job that can’t be done by a Democrat, let’s get rid of the job.”) Traditionally, Republicans call for tightening of voter ID regulations (which goes hand-in-glove with their support for immigration restrictions), while Democrats want ease of access to polls (and more broad-minded rules on immigration).
Each typically looks with suspicion at the motives of the other, especially in matters of election reform. According to Pew research, in 2008, 2.2 million votes were lost because of voter registration difficulties. Those are votes both parties are eager to net.
The actual mechanics of voting systems could also stand freshening up. According to the authors of a study released last week by the Brennan Center for Justice, at New York University School of Law, during the combined 2008 and 2010 general elections, nearly 400,000 absentee or provisional ballots were rejected because of technical mistakes made by voters on the ballot forms or envelopes. The report, “Better Designs, Better Elections,” adds that the lost votes were mostly found among minority and low-income voters, along with the disabled and the elderly.