Blaming the Voter

Convoluted procedures, not voter confusion, are the real obstacle to smooth elections.

Last week, Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed came out with a statement placing responsibility for the confusion after the 2004 election in part on the heads of voters. According to Reed, the states' voters helped to bring the months-long gubernatorial uncertainty upon themselves by "not following instructions". On the surface, Secretary Reed is right; voting isn't rocket science, and voters should be paying attention. But this "blame the voter" mentality stands in the way of real election reforms, allowing politicians to hold confused voters culpable for election snafus and low turnout while neglecting to reform convoluted and user-unfriendly registration and voting procedures. For an instructive example of this, we need look no further than Sam Reed's home state, where the post-election litigation resolving Washington's historically close gubernatorial election stretched on months after the final ballot had been cast.

The case, which hinged on each side's ability to produce evidence of improper voting, involved an extensive investigation which uncovered hundreds of improper votes by ex-felons. The dispute became a media spectacle, as Democrats and Republicans battled in the press over minutiae of how to resolve the problem—for example, the feasibility of inviting hundreds or even thousands of former felons to court to testify about whom they'd voted for, or the academic standing of proposed "proportional deduction" systems, so that the proper number of votes could be subtracted from the tallies of each candidate. Meanwhile, judging by court proceedings, it seemed to be almost irrelevant why so many felons actually had voted in the first place. But the reason was not irrelevant; it is actually a perfect example of exactly what is wrong with our election system.

The process ex-felons in Washington must complete in order to have their rights reinstated is a complex and multi-step one that has been poorly set out in the law, poorly understood by felons themselves, and poorly accommodated by a lack of cooperation between the Criminal Justice department and the Board of Elections. The system cancels the right to vote automatically when an individual is convicted of a felony, but does not reinstate that right automatically when that individual has completed his or her sentence. Instead, the individual must apply to have the right restored. Like many mechanisms within the election system, the process seems to have been designed according to the principle that voting is a right reserved for those who have the time, energy, and confidence required to navigate a byzantine bureaucratic system.

Small wonder, then, that the governor's race investigation turned up hundreds of ballots cast by ex-felons who thought they were merely performing their civic duty by voting but were actually committing another felony because they hadn't completed this process. If the Washington legislature and election officials had really been interested in fixing this problem, they could have passed legislation that streamlined this rights-restoration process or even have passed measures automatically restoring the voting rights of ex-felons. Instead, the only change they made with regard to reinstating voting rights was to explicitly lay out this messy procedure in the state's laws. As a fitting end, the new governor, Christine Gregoire, finally legitimated more than half a year after the election, signed the bill into law herself.

Meanwhile, turnout remains low, as thousands of small obstacles prevent voters from arriving at the polls to cast their ballot. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau of registered voters who didn't vote in November 2004, one third of the respondents listed "logistical" reasons for not voting, such as problems with registration, inconvenient or confusing polling places, and an incredible 20 percent said they did not vote because they were "too busy" or had schedule conflicts. With turnout and political engagement as low as they are today, what's really needed is not just for voters to "follow instructions" better, but for voting to become simpler in the first place.

Article created by The Century Foundation.