Our recent history of “Voting Wars”

“Procedures and equipment vary from county to county, with the result that voters’ chances of casting a vote in a statewide election that will actually be counted are wildly unequal. In our hyper-decentralized system, state and federal election officials have very little control over election decisions made at the local level.”

These are the words of Richard L. Hasen in his book The Voting Wars: From Florida 2000 to the Next Election Meltdown. Anyone who has ever worked an election at the polls knows how peculiar the rules are – often defying common sense. If you’ve worked in more than one jurisdiction, or even voted in a different one, you’re aware of the balkanization of voting procedure – how they vary so much from county to county. In his book, Hasen clearly describes how current voting procedures serve us about as poorly as any system could.

One of the main points that Hasen makes is that the right to vote is guaranteed by the federal government. Initially, enfranchisement was limited to white men who owned property, but in time it has been extended to women and minorities.  Before the Voting Rights Bill of 1965 was passed, southern states made it virtually impossible for African-Americans to vote. While white people merely needed to show up to vote, African-Americans had to pass a “literacy test,” which often had absurd requirements. such as being able to recite the entire Declaration of Independence or even the Constitution.

The Voting Rights Bill of 1965 put an end to the discrimination toward African-Americans in the south. If a particular state did not have a reasonable number of African-Americans actually voting, the federal government would send in its own registrars. This sounds somewhat like regulations that the north imposed upon the south during the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, but as was the case 100 years before the Voting Rights Bill, southern states did not treat African-Americans with fairness and justice.

Hasen wants to extend the Voting Rights Act to empower the federal government to have complete control of our elections. This is to bring consistency to the system and integrity to the process. The federal government has a recent history of extending human and civil rights, while states and many localities try to limit them. The federal government is also more transparent. It is easier to follow the machinations of 535 members of Congress as well as the president and vice-president, rather than following the shenanigans of thousands of state legislators and far more county officials.

Part of the reason why transparency is needed is because of accusations of voter fraud, many of which are specious.  Hasen goes on to say:

On top of the localism issue is the problem of partisanship. Many state and local election officials are either elected in partisan elections as Democrats or Republicans, or are appointed and supervised by partisans. The United States is almost alone among mature democracies in allowing the foxes to guard the henhouse.

Democrats, for example, are much less likely to be interested in purging voter rolls of potentially ineligible voters than Republicans are. Democrats worry about disenfranchising eligible voters; Republicans worry about the potential for fraud from bloated voter rolls.

Key elements in the Republican Party have pushed the false belief that voter fraud is a major influence in our elections and that it tends to benefit Democratic candidates. In response, Democrats have attacked Republican anti-fraud efforts, such as voter identification laws, as means of suppressing the Democratic vote

The specious issue of voter identification came to the fore in 2004, when the state of Ohio clearly prevented a number of minority voters from exercising their enfranchisement. The illegal acts spearheaded by the Ohio Secretary of State resulted in John Kerry losing his election against incumbent George W. Bush. The problems grew in 2008 and in the recent 2012 election, as numerous states imposed absurd demands on voters such as photo IDs. Those who were affected most by these regulations were minorities, students, and the elderly.

The federal government has consistently provided services for these minorities, students, and the elderly. When efforts are made to take away the rights extended to these groups, such as the Republicans’ effort to weaken Social Security, public opinion almost always says “no.”

Hasen wrote his book in early 2012, at a time that was chronologically recent but quite distant in terms of his suggestions. Fortunately, more and more people have come to favor the federal government assuming primary responsibility for our electoral process. Fair elections ensure the democracy guaranteed by our Constitution. We can be most thankful to Hasen for his work and honor it by following his suggestions.