A dozen years ago, the preface to a report on federal election reform began with these words: “Polls indicate that many Americans lack confidence in the electoral system, but the political parties are so divided that serious electoral reform is unlikely without a strong bipartisan voice.”
It’s still true. Americans still lack confidence in the electoral system. The political parties are still divided. Serious electoral reform remains unlikely.
Voting is the starting point for representative democracy. So why can’t we find a way to repair our electoral process?
The answer, of course, is that in politically divided times, changes to elections are seen through partisan eyes.
This is disappointing, because right now there should be plenty of room for agreement. We face genuine challenges to our electoral system that even the most partisan of Democrats and Republicans could come together on: aging machines, long lines at the polls, cyberattacks by hostile entities, foreign interference, inadequately trained voting officials, voter lists that are not up to date… It’s a long list.
But where the two sides fall apart is on the most basic of questions: How readily do we allow access to the voting booth? I’ll lay my cards on the table. I believe in wider access. Creating a Congress and an overall government that are more representative of the American people rests on expanding the electorate and beating back the barriers to voting.
This is not to dismiss concerns about voter fraud. We need to make sure that the person arriving to vote at a polling site is the same one who’s named on the voter list.
Yet many of us are ambivalent. We want to ensure there’s no fraud, but at the same time we are aware that stringent ID requirements disenfranchise a lot of people who may have trouble acquiring an ID. Though we want to ensure that only those people eligible to vote are actually voting, we also want to ensure that all those who are eligible to vote find it convenient to do so.
There’s a lot of work to be done on that front, at every level of government. The entire system needs top-to-bottom review and strengthening. Unfortunately, so far, I see no evidence that we as a nation are taking this need seriously.
Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.