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

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,
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.