On voting, listen to John Lewis

By Michael Waldman
January 23, 2013

President Barack Obama emphasized the need to modernize the U.S. election system in his Inaugural Address. One bill to do just that is set to be introduced Wednesday by the civil rights hero Representative John Lewis (D-Ga.) — who knows a thing or two about how to expand democracy.

Under his reform plan, states would have to take responsibility to make sure that every eligible voter is on the rolls. How? By taking existing computerized voter rolls, and expanding them with names voluntarily collected when citizens deal with government — including the Department of Motor Vehicles for drivers’ licenses, the Social Security Administration or other agencies. Any voter could opt in with the click of a mouse.

The proposed bill would bring our antiquated system into the 21st century. The  “Voter Empowerment Act,” introduced by Lewis with Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), could transform the way we choose our leaders.

This proposed plan meets the concerns of left and right. It offers a chance for an armistice in the endless trench warfare over voting. Instead of joylessly repeating the same fights over “voter fraud” and potential suppression, here is a reform that helps solve both problems at once.

It would be fairly easy. Voters could correct their record at the polling place on Election Day. Best of all, when voters move, their registration moves with them. No longer would citizens lose eligibility when they change addresses, as happens so often now in our highly mobile society.

Such a reform could add up to 50 million citizens to the rolls, permanently. It would cost less than the current system — because computers are cheaper than piles of paper. It would also curb the potential for fraud and error on voter rolls.

This would mark a true paradigm shift in the way we register voters. After all, Lewis accomplished a similar feat almost 50 years ago.

Lewis led the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. When the young minister reached the Edmund Pettus Bridge that day, police clubs and dogs assailed the protesters before a national television audience. Lewis was badly beaten and ended up in the hospital. But his physical courage and moral tenacity helped spur passage of the landmark, and still vital, Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Last year, Lewis, as a senior member of Congress, powerfully decried the varied efforts to limit voting, such as harsh ID requirements passed in some states. Courts blocked or postponed almost all these laws. Lewis’ answer to these actions goes far beyond simply avoiding new restrictive measures, or seeking partisan advantage.

For it was again clear on Election Day that even at its best, America’s voting system is a mess. Polling places veered toward chaos. Thousands waited in long, frustrating lines. In Palm Beach County, Florida, for example, some citizens stood for seven hours waiting to vote, partly because the state legislature had slashed early voting hours. The Orlando Sentinel reported that in central Florida alone, some 49,000 voters were deterred by endless queues. Many voters gave up.

Long lines were only the most visible problem, however. In Ohio, hundreds of thousands were forced to cast “provisional ballots” that were never counted. Had the presidential race been close and come down to the Buckeye State, as many predicted, we might still be waiting to know who won. One Obama campaign counsel told me plans were afoot to provide lawyers for individual voters — meaning each ballot would be litigated to the hilt.

The biggest problems stem from our outdated voter registration system. Rife with error, it relies on a blizzard of paper records. The rolls nationwide contained millions of dead people, according to a report last year from the Pew Center on the States, and countless duplicates and errors. If you have ever tried to get your name removed from a voter roll when you move to a new town, you know how hard it can be.

This idea has been supported by Republicans as well as Democrats. Jon Hunstman, the GOP presidential candidate, for example, backed a version when he was governor of Utah. Trevor Potter, a former Republican Federal Election Commission chairman, supports it. Bob Bauer, the Obama campaign’s chief lawyer, has long championed the approach.

In recent years, 25 states have implemented some of this bill’s provisions, with little partisan fuss. In 2012, hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide were added to the rolls through data transfers from computerized lists. (The Brennan Center, which I lead, first developed the proposal several years ago.)

Could this measure garner bipartisan support in bitterly divided Washington, D.C.? That is less clear.

Already, the Heritage Foundation is preparing to do battle. It convened four conservative secretaries of state for a meeting Thursday to attack the case for modernization. Voting rights advocates are readying a response.

More ominously, conservative columnist George F. Will recently fired a harsh shot. He warned that the Obama administration and Attorney General Eric Holder want to federalize elections as a first step toward forcing every American to vote. That’s absurd. We can have universal voter registration while still leaving the choice to exercise that right to individuals.

Will concedes that as many as 60 million eligible citizens are not registered but insists they are merely displaying their satisfaction with the status quo. No doubt some nonvoters are blissed out by our current politics. But it is more likely that many more are frustrated by an inept system. In 2008, according to a comprehensive analysis by California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors, at least 2 million people tried to vote but could not because of voter registration problems.

Other steps could help ease Election Day problems. National standards should ensure adequate opportunities to vote early everywhere in the country. We need to do more to invest in technology and to train poll workers, who are often earnest volunteers ill-equipped to handle the crush of voters. The federal Election Assistance Commission, now moribund, should be revived to help states.

Nevada’s Democratic secretary of state, Ross Miller, has another approach, suggesting that driver’s license photos be included in polling place signature books. If voters don’t have an ID, a photo could be snapped that would serve as their ID going forward. The plan’s success would clearly depend on the details. Done right, it could help point to an end to the divisive voter ID battles of recent years.

All these moves could be vital. But none more so that making sure that all citizens are registered long before Election Day. In 1965, Lewis paid with his blood for the right for every American to vote. Today, digital technology offers a new chance to march forward from Selma.


PHOTO (Top): Voters stand in line to cast their ballots for the presidential elections at a polling place in the Richmond Public Library in Richmond, Virginia, November 6, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (Insert Middle): Voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965. REUTERS/National Park Service

PHOTO (Insert Bottom): Representative John Lewis speaks at the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial dedication on the National Mall in Washington October 16, 2011. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


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Are we really sure that having the general public voting is really the right way to go? In our current society your right to vote seems to have come from the same department as the TSA. Makes the masses feel good.
But what are they actually voting for? The person with moral, ethics, and ideas similar to their own? Or for the best political campaign team? I think the latter. I think the US is is the same conundrum it was when it created the electoral college. And I think the answer is much the same. It is not wise to have the masses vote as they are not voting on their knowledge, but only on the lies and spin from campaign machines. In this day and age ot the US,, I would think it wiser to revamp the electoral college, allow them the research and investigations of the candidates, and let people with real information make the decision.
Of course, changing our form of government would be a much more strategic plan then propping up our decrepit system.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

You’re missing the point. States that use voter ID laws are doing so to deliberately bar people from voting if there is a chance that they might vote against Republicans. The kind of solution is irrelevant. No solution is acceptable to them because it would undercut their efforts to reverse civil rights.

Posted by asrinath3 | Report as abusive

Exactly the point asrinath3, there are very powerful and influential groups that can and do distort our election system with many, many different gimmicks, local gerrymandering, ballot stuffing, dead voters, you name it. You are looking at the tree directly in front of you, not the forest that you walked into.
Provide the electoral college with the tools and authority they need to make the best judgment. Then the argument shifts to how to elect the electoral college instead.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I agree with you asrinath3, but proposals like Lewis’s put the vote-deniers on the spot, for it addresses the issues that they claim are important while doing nothing to address the issue they are actually trying to effect. It causes them to ratchet up the silly justifications (like Will and tmc here), and eventually, they begin to look idiotic if not distasteful to most people.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

Getting anyone to register is the easy part. Verifying that (1) they are truly eligible (citizen, no felonies, etc.) and (2) that they are registered only in one precinct (or state) is the difficult part. The old Chicago adage of “vote early and vote often” is not a myth.

While I agree that every eligible citizen should have the right to vote (including the least informed among us) ensuring the system is valid is as much a critical issue. Having a driver’s license is not the most reliable document, as we now have states that are issuing licenses based on residency and not citizenship. Same goes for SS cards, which a legal immigrant can secure. Therefore, someone has to define and implement a system (like a passport) that requires some form of verification of elibility.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Are you serious?

For one thing, the US isn’t now, nor has it EVER been a democracy. It wasn’t intended to be when it was formed and it still functions like the plutocracy it really is.

Want proof?

Try repeating this phrase very slowly “e-l-e-c-t-o-r-a-l c-o-l-l-e-g-e” (electoral college for those learning impaired like the author) which is the basic insurance that the wealthy class has that this country will NEVER be a democracy, no matter how many more suckers you sign up to vote.

It’s all a scam!

That’s why the government is not working.

The US needs some fundamental changes to the US Constitution, but arguing that streamlining it to bring it into the 21st century by signing more people up to vote is a joke.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@ tmc –

Thanks for proving my point.

Are you sure you weren’t present at the Constitutional Convention?

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Eliminate the public’s vote? What the….? Are you nuts?!

And who will set the criteria for this elite Electoral College, who will then decide the fate of millions of Americans for years to come?

@tmc, please outline for me what criteria YOU think an Electoral College candidate should have.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive