A dozen years ago, the preface to a report on federal election reform began with these words: “Polls indicate that many Americans lack confidence in the electoral system, but the political parties are so divided that serious electoral reform is unlikely without a strong bipartisan voice.”
I can find no part of that sentence that’s not still true. Americans still lack confidence in the electoral system. The political parties are still divided. Serious electoral reform remains unlikely. Perhaps the only change is that the commission issuing the report was co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican — former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker — who genuinely tried to find a bipartisan approach to our election system’s problems.
Since then, we’ve careened into a pitched political battle on the issue.
At one level, I’m baffled by the lack of progress. I sat on that commission, and what seemed obvious to us then seems even more obvious today. Voting is the most basic step a representative democracy asks of us. We do three things when we vote: we select the officials we want running the government; we suggest the direction of government policy; and we reaffirm our belief and our stake in representative democracy. You can’t get more important than that. So why do we remain in an endless national standoff on how to fix our elections?
The answer, of course, is that in politically divided times, changes to elections are seen through partisan eyes.
This is disappointing, because right now there should be plenty of room for agreement. We face genuine challenges to our electoral system that even the most partisan of Democrats and Republicans could come together on: aging machines, long lines at the polls, cyber attacks by hostile entities, foreign interference, inadequately trained voting officials, voter lists that are not up to date… It’s a long list.
But where the two sides fall apart is on the most basic of questions: how readily do we give access to the voting booth? I’ll lay my cards on the table. I believe in wider access. Creating a Congress and an overall government that are more representative of the American people rests on expanding the electorate and beating back the barriers to voting.
The more people who vote, the better the chance to strengthen the political center formed by moderates and pragmatists. The lower voter turnout becomes, the more sway held by the most ideologically intense voters, who reward the most polarizing candidates, and the more likely deep resentments are created among those citizens denied the right to vote.
This is not to dismiss concerns about voter fraud. We do need to make sure that the person arriving to vote at a polling site is the same one who’s named on the voter list. And we’re headed in that direction. The number of states requiring a voter ID has increased dramatically over the last couple of decades — today about 50 percent of American voters live in states that require a voter to produce an ID before casting his or her ballot.
Yet the ambivalence many of us feel about this is understandable. We want to ensure there’s no fraud, but at the same time we are aware that stringent ID requirements disenfranchise a lot of people who may have trouble acquiring an ID: they don’t have a driver’s license, passport, or birth certificate. So the requirements can be an effective way to block minority groups or others from voting. And there’s this political reality: many of those who call the loudest for restrictive ID laws are targeting groups that they think will vote against them.
Though we want to ensure that only those people eligible to vote are actually voting, we also want to ensure that all those who are eligible to vote find it convenient to do so. There’s a lot of work to be done on that front, at every level of government. The entire system needs top-to-bottom review and strengthening. And so far, I see no evidence that we as a nation are taking this need seriously.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.