Still Broken

Editorial // Published March 18, 2009 in The New York Times

In last year’s presidential election, as many as three million registered voters were not allowed to cast ballots and millions more chose not to because of extremely long lines and other frustrating obstacles. Ever since the 2000 election in Florida, the serious flaws in the voting system have been abundantly clear. More than eight years later, Congress must finally deliver on its promise of electoral reform.

At a hearing last week, the Senate Rules Committee released a report sponsored by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the sorry state of voting. It said that administrative barriers, such as error-filled voting lists or wrongful purges of voter rolls prevented as many as three million registered voters from casting ballots. Another two million to four million registered voters were discouraged from even trying to vote because of difficulty obtaining an absentee ballot, voter ID issues and other problems.

The bad news didn’t end there. According to the report, another nine million eligible voters tried to register but failed to because of a variety of hurdles, including missed deadlines or changes in residence.

The new study adds to a hefty, and rapidly growing, literature on voting problems. The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida just issued a report on the many difficulties that ex-felons in that state face when they try to register, a process that is filled with needless paperwork and bureaucratic confusion. A newly released report drafted at the request of Ohio’s secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, surveys many problems in her state’s voting last year, including a large number of errors in the state’s computer database of eligible voters.

One of the main reasons voting is in such bad shape is that the states have far too much leeway in running elections, ranging from what ID they require to the number of polling places they open and the allocation of voting machines, which has a big impact on how long the lines are on Election Day. Registering to vote and casting ballots in federal elections are federal acts, which should be governed by uniform national standards.

Senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat of New York, is the new chairman of the Rules Committee, which oversees elections, and last week’s hearing is an encouraging sign that he intends to push for new laws.

The most important change Congress can make is to require universal voter registration. That would put the burden on states to register eligible voters — identifying them from other government lists such as tax and motor vehicle databases — rather than forcing prospective voters to navigate the obstacle-ridden path to the voting rolls. States should also be required to make registration permanent so voters are not purged from the rolls because of a move to a new address or a name change.

Congress should enact lenient federal rules for voter identification, allowing voters to present a wide array of IDs. Far too many states have onerous requirements that make it particularly hard for poor people and racial minorities to vote. And it should outlaw vote suppression and other campaign dirty tricks.

It can start by passing a bill re-introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat of Rhode Island, to ban “voter caging,” a tactic used by political operatives to erroneously label voters — often racial minorities — as ineligible and to get their names removed from the rolls.

President Obama championed election reform when he was in the Senate, and Democrats, who have been far more committed to the cause than Republicans, now have healthy margins in both houses of Congress. Supporters of a more fair, efficient and inclusive system of voting should not let this moment slip away. The millions of registered voters who are being turned away deserve a lot better.