Hope for Fixing the Heart of America's Voting Problems

The system is broken. But the midterms laid the foundation for reforming it.
November 26, 2018
White man in button-up shirt holding a broken heart with the American flag on it,
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Peter Harkness
By Peter Harkness  |  Founder, Publisher Emeritus

The voting in Virginia’s Chesterfield County did not go smoothly this past November.  There were very long lines, incorrect ballots were handed out to some voters and one precinct didn’t open when it was supposed to. Not far away, in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, more than a dozen precincts ran out of printed ballots, delaying voters by more than two hours at some sites.

In New York City, it was the same: long lines, broken equipment, even one case of voters being locked out of a polling place due to a “programming error.” In seven polling places in the Chicago area voters received only one page of what was supposed to be a two-page ballot. And perhaps most incredibly, election workers at a Detroit high school were unable to find the voting machines, resulting in long delays.

Of course, that’s all small potatoes compared to the total turnout reported by the U.S. Elections Project: 116 million people, or 49.2 percent of the electorate. By the time all the votes have been counted those numbers will likely exceed 120 million and 50 percent, putting it in contention with the 1914 midterm turnout of 50.4 percent, when only men were allowed to vote.

It’s as plain as it can be that we need to address problems with our voting system -- its supervision, structure and technology. Management is too decentralized, with most states delegating administrative responsibilities to their counties, including ballot design and the actual vote counting. Supervision is politically dicey, leaving us with situations like those we saw this time in Florida, Georgia and Kansas, where candidates for office were responsible for conducting the process. And the voting machinery is outdated, affecting both reliability and security. To update it, states will have to spend more, but Congress needs to help out.

Another problem is the shortage of poll workers, who can make the difference between a smooth, efficient electoral process and a chaotic one. Good workers are getting harder to find. In the wake of the 2012 election, President Barack Obama ordered a full review of all election procedures. The national commission he created found that one of the central weaknesses of the electoral system was “the absence of a dependable, well-trained corps of poll workers.”

Finally, we need to make voting easier. I know that’s a politically charged recommendation, though it shouldn’t be. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that about 80 percent of Democrats felt that everything possible should be done to “make it easy for every citizen to vote,” while about half of Republicans agreed. Majorities in both parties also favored a requirement that all voters show a government-issued ID, though Republicans were far more supportive (91 percent) than Democrats (63 percent).

But the most serious problem with our electoral system is not the way it is administered. It’s the system itself. The real demon in the basement is partisan gerrymandering. In North Carolina in 2018, Democrats won about half the vote, which is better than they have done in a decade, yet captured only three of the state’s 13 congressional districts. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, GOP legislators made no secret of their strategy to cram as many Democratic voters as possible into those three districts, giving themselves a clear shot at the other 10.

But this election cycle has given reformers heart. Voters in Colorado, Michigan and Missouri endorsed independent commissions or other bipartisan and nonpartisan ways to create new state legislative and congressional districts. Last May, voters in Ohio did the same. As of this writing, a similar measure in Utah was leading by a slender margin.

Perhaps the most interesting new model will be tried in Michigan, where a commission overseeing redistricting will select its 13 members randomly from a list of thousands of prequalified regular citizens. Four will have to be Democrats, four Republicans and five independents. Approval of any plan will require a simple majority, but the majority must include two members from both parties as well as two independents. Every 10 years, after the Census is completed, the commission will draw new lines, taking that responsibility away from the legislature.

Aside from the ballot measures, the redistricting process is being challenged through the courts in at least five more states -- Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Finally, there is the question of who is and is not allowed to vote. On that issue, perhaps the most surprising news came from Florida, the state with perhaps the worst reputation for vote manipulation, dating back to the “hanging chad” nightmare in the 2000 presidential race and extending to the “exact match of signatures” requirement on absentee ballots this year.  With two of the closest races for governor and for the U.S. Senate, the Sunshine State was a center of attention in this election, particularly for President Trump. Ironically, Florida was the state that passed what may be the largest expansion of voting rights in the nation since 1971, when the voting age was lowered to 18.  By a stunning 65 percent majority, Floridians restored the right to vote to as many as 1.4 million felons once they have served their sentences, as long as they were not convicted of murder or sex crimes.

Go figure.

Peter Harkness
Peter Harkness | Founder, Publisher Emeritus | pharkness@governing.com