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Elisabeth Genn
YES! Magazine / Op-Ed
Published: Saturday 21 April 2012
“To win the broader battle for the right of every eligible American to vote, we need more than a good defense against bad laws.”

What Would Real Voting Reform Look Like?

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Since the start of 2011, a wave of restrictive voting laws has swept the country. This attack on voting rights is unprecedented, unjustifiable, and discriminatory in its effects. 

Over the last few weeks, the Department of Justice and the courts have stepped in, blocking some of the laws that most clearly violate protected rights. But none of these victories is final. To win the broader battle for the right of every eligible American to vote, we need more than a good defense against bad laws. We need positive bipartisan reform to bring our outdated electoral system into the twenty-first century.

Playing defense

Let’s start with the restrictive voting laws, and where they stand. Since the beginning of 2011, 14 states have passed, or are on the verge of passing, restrictive voting laws that have the potential to impact the 2012 election. The states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia—represent 192 electoral votes, or 70 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. The new restrictions range from eliminating Sunday early voting (when Blacks and Latinos tend to vote in greater numbers) to imposing new burdens and potential penalties on groups that sign up voters.  Most common of all are laws that require voters to produce specific kinds of government-issued photo ID before their votes can be counted.  

Such laws have been justified under the theory that they will prevent “voter fraud,” even though a person is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter impersonation fraud—and even though 11 percent of voting-age Americans lack the kinds of ID these states will now require. That percentage is significantly higher among students, the elderly, African-American and Hispanic voters, and the poor. These will be the people most likely to lose their right to vote under these laws.

The Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965 to protect many of these same groups, has recently been invoked to challenge the new wave of voter suppression laws. In Texas, the Department of Justice objected to a photo ID law, citing concerns that it would disproportionately disenfranchise racial minorities. The DOJ also pointed out that the state had produced no real evidence of a voter fraud problem not already addressed by existing law. In Florida, where a new law imposed such onerous burdens on voter registration groups that the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote were forced to suspend their activities altogether, the Department of Justice found that the state had failed to meet its burden to show that its voting changes are not discriminatory.

The courts are also taking a more active role. Two Wisconsin state courts, in separate lawsuits, issued injunctions blocking any further implementation of that state’s photo ID law; the courts say that the law violates rights granted by the Wisconsin state constitution. This battle now continues in the state Court of Appeals. More recently, a state court in Missouri ruled that the ballot summary for a proposed constitutional amendment requiring a photo ID to vote was “insufficient and unfair.” Immediately on the heels of the court’s decision, the Missouri legislature began trying to rewrite the language and introduced new measures to try to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2012.

Given the scope of the challenge, intervention by the Department of Justice and the courts is badly needed to protect our right to vote. But it is not sufficient. If we are to stem the rising tide of restrictive state laws, we must also find affirmative solutions that work. 

Time to play offense

The use of so-called “voting reform” to disenfranchise voters hides the fact that there are real problems in our elections. None is bigger than our outdated, paper-based voter registration system, which is exceptionally expensive and riddled with errors. According to a study by Caltech-MIT, in 2008 2.2 million citizens could not vote because of registration problems. This should be a source of embarrassment on both sides of the aisle and an impetus for real election reform. 

Among other problems, the existing system cannot keep up with voters as they move, pass away, or change names after getting married. State governments could use existing technologies to automatically and permanently register citizens to vote. In 2012, we have the ability to update voter records when necessary, provide for fail-safe correction of voter information at polling places, and allow expanded methods of registering, such as online registration. Such modernization would lower costs, add millions of eligible voters to the rolls, and also foreclose any possibility of fraud. Using existing government information that can be cross verified, our voting system can be brought into the modern electronic age, limiting the human errors we face in our paper-based system. 

At a time when the states are busy enacting “solutions” in search of a problem, this is a real solution we cannot afford to pass up. 

ABOUT Elisabeth Genn

Elisabeth Genn wrote this article for YES! Magazine. She is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

Raymond P. Bilodeau Whittier

Raymond P. Bilodeau

Whittier is right on. Your op-scan (Diebold/Sequoia) machines are NOT accurate or trustworthy. They can also be hacked. Check out for past and recent examples of the inaccuracies of electronic voting.Paper ballots, hand counted at the polling place, in front of the public and the press, is the only 100% accurate method of tallying the votes cast in any election.

voter fraud in most cities is

voter fraud in most cities is a dog bite man story

The only voter fraud I

The only voter fraud I remember in recent years is when GW stole his election in 00" They just don't want to be on the other side of that issue!

Your right on the 'Anti voter

Your right on the 'Anti voter Laws' being actualized by the Republican Party. What scares me isn't this henious extremism by these minions of the 2%ers, but the ones who are on board with their acts & ideals, the voters who keep them in office to do these things.

Are we, America, so intensely vile & committed to insure control, that they must base their 'successes' in the disadvantaging of all others in all things? Guess so.

Here we are. And all we're doing is going, 'Oh, my! I hope the courts can overture this or that?' What happen to civil disobedience or direct action. That is what held these small people in check before, but now we're so it appears aware we've lost our 'manhood', 'gumption', 'righteous anger', anything?

As for the 'What is needed is bi-partisan agreement'. Ain't gonna happen. The only bi-partisan agreement is that the Democrats will capitulate, after compromising their position to a place righter then the Republicans, who will then move further right till they get what they want. Or if the Democrats are in the majority, just muddle around & claim it’s the ‘Super Majority’ thing, so can’t be done, no need to try but they like the idea alot.

And as for your ‘changes needed’ are you one of the aforementioned Democrats? Cause you sure sound like it. Already to save every buck, yeah we need to get our democracy on the cheap. For you it appears that there is a monetary price on democracy which, for you, it seems is to high, out of your very pocket even.

Your whole rationale is far from the truth, which is, it, democracy, must be & is cumbersome. How about actually funding the physical mechanics of voting. Ooops! A job plan, real live people working next to each other, earning a living, talking, breathing the same air, there goes the deficit, again. Maybe we can cut the EPA and solve the air problem too?

I apologize for the sliders, but it is those other guys, the voters afore referred to, that concern me. How bout we start actually talking face to face with them, the other voters about real stuff, may or may not work but then we wouldn’t just be talking to each other about them & theirs. Who are us, We, the people, America.

America has risen beyond itself many times in our history, no matter the cost. Because we just did, because it was the right, as in the correct, thing to do. That’s the cost we should ever pay gladly & with honor, with a bounty thrown in for just being expected to pay for it.

I whole heartedly agree with Raymond P. Bilodeau’s post. The real big ‘Vote Frauds’ recently of impact have been the Republican’s owned & indebted to Computer Voting Corporations, less cost, little waste, no trails or faulty counts etc. Guess they don’t need any laws, I meant law changes.

Dang! There I go again. Time to go find a ‘conservative’ counter part to converse with & to have a beer with, while I try to change the direction of their wind. Never know, does one? Gotha try.

God don't bless America! WE, the people ... DO!

I'm not sure how an on-line

I'm not sure how an on-line registration system would help things. Wouldn't many of the same people who lack photo IDs be the ones who wouldn't have access to registering online (students would be an obvious exception). I would have liked more more information on how such a system might work in ways that are non-discrimnatory.

It wouldn't work very well as

It wouldn't work very well as there are too few people knowledgeable enough at the local levels to maintain it. However, the big wrong-wing corporations which dominate the electronic voting machine business would love, I am sure, to "help" us with that "minor" problem. Especially, the one which stole the 2004 Election from Kerry for Bush in the Ohio count.

I, like a lot of people, am

I, like a lot of people, am leery of "electronic registration." Especially at the city/town level, hacking is quite easy, sell me on a hack-proof voter registration list and registering to vote.

"2.2 million deprived of voting," eh? How many of those people had no clue that you had to register to vote? How many of those people had moved to a new location without registering the change of address, or confirming that the RMV had notified the city/town of the change? How many had no proof of identity when confronted with the fact they were not on the registration list?

As a clerk at a polling station where I live, we don't have very many of these problems. 99-100% of the people who come to the polling station get to vote, and we use a simple paper system that allows hand-counting votes if someone claims there was a miscount. And no one can hack the system. The only electronic part is the counting of the votes as the ballot goes into the machine.

Until there is a bullet-proof electronic system from registering/change of registration to voting, paper is the only sane and sure way to go. And any system has to insure that the election officials are not corrupt. Maybe that's why we who work in the polls are mostly old people.

Changes of addresses are NOT

Changes of addresses are NOT usually propagated from county to county even within the same State. Often changes of address are NOT even propagated within Precincts in the Same county for months or years. And, between States?? You've got to be kidding. This is only, supposedly, the #1 Business country in the World, but our Registrar of Voters situations are both partisan and anchored to paper lists that often predate IBM punch cards.

As for the electronic voting machines, they are a joke. The industry is dominated by right-wing corps, one of which "fudged" the 2004 Ohio vote count for Bush. It happens regularly at the County level across the Country.

so your chances of getting

so your chances of getting hit by lighting is 3% ? while review voting of 11/08 for city election in 09 i found 2 of 70 people i know in my precint had voted in 11/08 but one died in 02/08 and other in 07/08 but here voting fraud is a dog bite man story

Nationwide, I believe you

Nationwide, I believe you would find that situation worse in 2010.

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