By Lee H. Hamilton
The campaigning for next year’s elections is starting to draw more attention, and with it comes a focus on voters and their mood. Which is all well and good, but it leaves out of the equation one large bloc of citizens: people who are eligible to vote, but don’t.
They give a multitude of reasons: they’re too busy, or voting takes too much time, or they’re turned off by politics and the money game. Sometimes they’re ill or disabled. Sometimes they ran into ID requirements that stymied them.
Although there are plenty of policy-makers whose chief concern is to protect the integrity of the ballot and reduce fraud, others are deeply worried about falling rates of voter participation. They’re concerned because voting doesn’t just put office-holders in place and push policy in one direction or another. It also affirms the electoral system. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen.
So what do we do about it?
Generally speaking, Democrats have emphasized making ballot access easier; Republicans have focused on ballot integrity. Both need to be addressed. The vigor of our system depends on the vote of each citizen. We have to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.
We also need to modernize the system. Ours is fragile and uneven. We’ve already had one presidential election decided by courts on a question of failed infrastructure. More embarrassing cases will certainly occur.
And the days are long past when it was okay to place election administration in the hands of partisan state or local politicians. It’s time for election management across the country to be in non-partisan hands.
The aim of reforming the system is to make voting convenient, efficient, and pleasant, to make sure the mechanics work as they ought, and to ensure that disputes are handled fairly. State governments, not localities, should be responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter lists.
Finally, there’s the question of voter ID. It’s legitimate to ensure that a person presenting himself or herself at the voting site is the same one named on the voting list. But requiring an ID needs to be accompanied by aggressive efforts to find voters and provide free access to the voting booth. Instead, a lot of states that have instituted ID requirements have dismissed the idea that this imposes a responsibility to reach out to voters and make IDs available to those who can’t afford it. They’re subverting representative democracy.
Lee Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. He writes regularly about Congress and what individuals can do to make our representative democracy work better. His columns are part of the educational mission of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, where he is director. www.centeroncongress.org