With the 2012 presidential election now behind us, this is the right moment to review this nation’s voting process and the review is not a good one. The Preamble of the Constitution famously starts with the words “We the People,” and promises “a more perfect Union. ” If we want our “ Union” to become even “more perfect,” we must strengthen our national standards on the voting process, set a floor below which no state may fall, and clarify what voting rights no citizen may be denied.
Long before the words “Tea Party” symbolized a nascent political movement, the “Boston Tea Party” signified organized resistance to a political system where the people governed had no voice in the political process. As a result, at both home and abroad, our nation’s legitimacy rests primarily on the notion that those who govern have been fairly chosen by those who will be governed. Nearly 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court summed up the importance of the right to vote this way: “The right to vote freely for the candidate of one’s choice is of the essence of a democratic society, and any restrictions on that right strike at the heart of representative government. And the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.”
Lofty rhetoric about voting, however, does not translate the right to vote into a reality for everyone in 2012. Purposeful action does, but that is nothing new.
Throughout this nation’s history, we have struggled with who can vote and how we vote, extending the franchise beyond the capacity, if not the imagination, of the Constitution’s Framers. At our founding, we permitted African slaves to count for purposes of determining how many congressional representatives a state would have, but did not allow African Americans to vote legally until the 15th Amendment’s passage in 1870. Even then, many of them could not vote until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At our founding, we denied women the right to vote and it took another constitutional amendment, the 19th, to guarantee access to the ballot regardless of gender. A third constitutional amendment, the 25th, lowered the minimum age for voting to 18.
National legislation, such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), also has made a difference. The former requires states to offer voter registration opportunities at various public offices and the latter helped states replace outdated voting machines, create a system of provisional balloting as well as a computerized voter registration system, train poll workers and change election day procedures.
These accomplishments notwithstanding, the 2012 elections suggest that much more work is needed. Extending the right to vote to as many as possible is not enough, if voters become frustrated with the election process because of undue delay or doubt whether votes cast actually will be counted. In Connecticut and elsewhere around the nation, voters waited far too long to exercise their right. At the same time modern technology and thoughtful planning have made the lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles shorter, the lines at polling places inexplicably seem to have become longer. In Arizona, the outcomes of some political races remained in doubt days after the election because hundreds of thousands of ballots remained uncounted. Indeed, according to press reports, more than half a million ballots in Arizona remained uncounted three days after the election.
Of course, no review of the 2012 election process would be complete without a mention of the great state of Florida. The drama of the 2000 elections should have been enough to create the reform necessary to ensure a fair, accurate and efficient voting process in Florida, where the nation waited weeks for an outcome to the Bush-Gore presidential race, while hanging chads were analyzed and butterfly ballots reviewed. Yet, official election results from the election on Tuesday, Nov. 6 were not available until Saturday, Nov. 10. While the circumstances in Florida do not appear as dire as those in Arizona, Florida should have figured out how to solve this problem by now.
Perhaps, meaningful reform to that state’s voting process is about to come. Florida Speaker of the House Will Weatherford has announced an investigation of the problems surrounding the 2012 election process, as he should. He rightfully expressed concern “about the fact that we can’t seem to be able to count votes in the state of Florida” and recognized how the State of Florida looks 12 years after the 2000 election debacle: “We’re the 27th largest economy in the world and we can’t count votes.”
It is fine (and essential) for the Florida Legislature to review that state’s process, but there should be a uniform and national response as well. The recent problems in Arizona, Florida, Connecticut and elsewhere suggest that today’s federal laws are not sufficient and a comprehensive reform is warranted. To paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., long lines and uncounted ballots anywhere are a threat to the right to vote everywhere. When it comes to voting and the election process, “We the People” need to get back to the work of making a “more perfect Union.” •