Election reform is needed in the United States on several levels, both because of inequities in the present system and because of low voter turnoutone of the lowest in the world. The period from 1960 to 2000 marked a long decline: whereas 65 percent of the adult population voted in the 1960 presidential election, only 51 percent did so in 2000. Only in the presidential election of 2004, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate, did the number rise, to 60.7 percent, spurred by divisions over the war in Iraq and strong voter registration drives. But overall, the number of Americans who go to the polls remains shockingly low for a nation that prides itself on offering its citizens access to the democratic process.
Among those pressing for reforms that might increase voter participation are former President Jimmy Carter and James W. Baker, secretary of state during the administration of George H. W. Bush. As co-chairs of the 21-member bi-partisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, they have released a series of recommendations. The purpose of the commission, they say, was to increase voter participation, strengthen ballot security and provide for paper auditing of electronic voting machines. The paper trail is to prevent the loss of votes because of malfunctioning of the machines due to accident or design. Such recommendations are a way to build on the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was enacted in response to what has been referred to as the 2000 presidential election debacle, with its serious vote-related problems.
Among the more commendable recommendations is one that would make it possible for disenfranchised former felons who have served their sentences to vote once again. Thanks to advocacy groups like the nonprofit Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., 11 states since 1997 have enacted reforms to reduce the number of disenfranchised men and women, many of them members of minority groups. As Marc Mauer, the Sentencing Project’s executive director, told America, these reforms represent a belated recognition that election policies going back as far as two centuries have seldom been re-evaluated in the light of changed views of citizen rights.
One of the commission’s recommendations, however, has given rise to objections by civil rights advocates who think it will raise barriers against members of minority groupsnamely, that prospective voters be required to show photo identification. The report claims that this recommendation would help prevent voter fraud. There is little evidence, however, that fraud by individuals has been a major problem in past elections. Most cases of fraud are due to the organized schemes of a political party or interest group. Some congressional legislators have spoken out against the photo-ID requirement, most notably Senator Barack Obama (Democrat of Illinois). In September he introduced a resolution not only opposing it, but also referring to it as a poll tax for the 21st century. A dozen other senators co-sponsored the resolution.
Georgia, unfortunately, last spring took a step backward by requiring a state-issued photo ID for voters without driver licenses or other state or government-issued photo ID. Civil rights advocates predict this will keep members of minority groups, the elderly and poor people as a whole away from the polls. Previously, registered voters needed only to show a Social Security card, utility bill or some other form of identification in order to vote.
Bruce S. Gordon, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, has said that if left unchallenged, many African-Americans and members of other minorities in Georgia will find it difficult to cast their ballots. And Julian Bond, chairman of the N.A.A.C.P.’s board of directors, promised that court challenges would be forthcoming, as indeed is happening, not only through the N.A.A.C.P., but also through the League of Women Voters and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The N.A.A.C.P.’s lawsuit argues that the requirement’s underlying purpose is to reduce voting by the poor, the elderly, the infirm, African-American, Hispanic and other minority voters by increasing the difficulty of voting. Of Georgia’s 159 counties, there are only 56 places where the required photo ID can be obtainedfor a fee of up to $35. This amount does not include the additional cost of transportation to the place of application. Fortunately, on Oct. 18 a federal judge enjoined the state from putting the law into effect.
Steps to increase greater participation at the polls should include increased efforts to make it possible for more homeless people to vote. According to the campaign of the National Coalition for the Homeless, called You Don’t Need a Home to Vote, a majority of the homeless are not registered. For many of them, too, the photo-ID requirement would create yet another barrier. If the goal is to increase participation in the nation’s political process, barriers need to be removed, not raised.