Monday, November 12, 2012

“We have to fix that”

Long lines at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library
on Election Day in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

During his acceptance speech on early Wednesday morning, reelected President Barack Obama addressed the need to fix the US electoral system. Speaking before a crowd of cheerful supporters, he said "I want to thank every American who participated in this election, whether you voted for the very first time, or waited in line for a very long time, by the way, we have to fix that."

Although this was probably one of the few times the electoral system has been part of an acceptance speech, the problems encountered are not new. Since the Butterfly Ballot scandal in 2000, hundreds of incidents have been reported by authorities of all levels, election watchdog groups, media and citizens.

These elections were marred by long lines across the country, but especially in Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Poorly trained election officials were misguiding voters in relation to ID requirements to vote. Deficient voting machines, like the one caught on a video in Pennsylvania giving Romney votes cast for Obama, also made the voting experience cumbersome.

Although President Obama’s intent is quite plausible, the road in which he is about to embark might turn bumpier than expected. HAVA, the Electoral Assistance Commission, Universities across the nation, ONG’s, have all made considerable efforts to improve the US electoral system, yet they have been unsuccessful confronting the conflict of interests that exist between States and the Federal Government, and the inconvenient level of partisanship that electoral bodies have shown across the nation.

In a recent interview by Rachel Maddow, Rick Hasen, Professor of Law and Political Science at UC Irvine, and author of "The Voting Wars," made it quite clear. Although the constitution provides the mechanisms to create a national authority to advance the reforms needed, the political will from all stakeholders to produce such transformation is still missing.

Rachel Maddow articulately stated “voting is a Federal issue, with federal laws to protect it…. Elections are a state affair”. Congress has on its hand the possibility to transform the system, however, letting congress, or any other institution conduct elections, would mean letting go some power and attributions the States hold at the moment. Looking at recent history, both parties have been imposing over the population all kinds of laws and regulations to affect the voter base of the other party. It is part of the Voting War Hasen mentions in his book. For example, and according to Professor Hasen, long lines were a deliberate effort by Republicans to depressing democratic turnout. By cutting back on the number of days and hours early voting was available, Republicans were, allegedly, hurting democratic votes.

In Florida, Republican Governor Rick Scott, signed a law shortening the number of days for early voting to eight from 14. This was one of the main reasons it took Floridians so long to vote and to obtain results.

If Obama is to take Mr. Hasen’s recommendation, he has to create the political momentum to have Congress assume the authority granted by the constitution to set rules for congressional elections. Then, he could proceed to ask States to follow the path of Congress.

In spite of the threat posed by a possible fiscal meltdown, a nationwide debate on the healthcare reform, and a lagging economy, Obama must find the time and energy to impose the political agenda needed to fix the electoral system, if the US is to continue showcasing its democracy as an example to follow.