Bad Fixes, Wrong Problems

The Carter-Baker report on election reform misses the point.

Article created by The Century Foundation.

It is truly shocking how, given all the problems in the voting system and continued disenfranchisement, the terms of the debate have shifted to that of so-called "ballot integrity." It is reminiscent of how conservatives have misappropriated the concept of patriotism and the American flag, and used the power of language and messaging to distort the discussion, by using terms such as "partial birth abortion" or "death tax." The latest example of this is the just released report of the commission on election reform co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker.

The 2001 bi-partisan commission co-chaired by former President Carter and Gerald Ford, which The Century Foundation co-sponsored and I was on the staff of (and which had an entirely different membership), had a very different approach. There were differences about how best to implement the recommendations of the report. However, while we were concerned with accuracy and preventing fraud, we did not see that as a goal that was in conflict with ensuring the right to vote.

It was the 2001 commission that promoted the idea of statewide voter registration databases, so that we could both prevent fraud and ensure every registered voter was on the voting list the list and able to vote. We proposed the idea that any voter who comes to the polls and does not appear on the list be given a provisional ballot. We stated that when a felon completes his sentence, he should get his voting rights back. We enumerated several ways to ensure that "no individual, group or community [holds] a justified belief that the electoral process works less well for some than for others." We even recommended an election day holiday!

This stands in stark contrast to the entire tenor of the Carter-Baker report, which presumes that fraud committed by voters is the biggest problem confronting our election system. There is simply no strong evidence of this, and some of the remedies proposed will take us backwards in the fight to increase voter participation.

In addition to proposing limited felon re-enfranchisement and providing negligible input into the very important and controversial provisional ballot questions, the report really focuses on requiring all voters to present government issued photo ID, such as the REAL ID, in order to vote, and promoting the expensive and complex idea of making all statewide databases "interoperable" nationwide. As I and others have documented repeatedly (see here, here, and here) voter fraud at the polling place is not our major problem, and identification requirements serve to disenfranchise many groups of voters.

Here's what the problems are in American elections today: too few—not too many—people vote; the voter registration system is not working for voters or elections administrators; voters are still systematically disenfranchised, due to such policies as felon disenfranchisement, flawed felon purges, inaccessible polling sites, misallocation of voting machines, and inappropriate challenges at the polls; voters are individually disenfranchised by continued, often race based, voter intimidation and deceptive practices; and there is a general mistrust of the election system by the American people.

Why don't we start there instead.