Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Brief Discussion of Election Voting Reform

The aftermath of any election season brings numerous complaints about the inefficiencies and/or unfairness of the voting process. Voters wait too long, voter ID laws are too stringent, bias against certain voting parties, inconsistencies in the early voting process, etc. Unfortunately while most critics are correct that there is some gross inefficiency in the system, most do not actually consider the entire system and how it reflects on the problem, they simply focus on their specific complaint. Also critics do not seem to provide many solutions to the identified problems beyond, “Fix it!”. An important element that must be considered is that because the ability of the electorate to actually wield power is so scant, hundreds of millions of people will vote during major election season. Therefore, there will be significant wait times to vote in most situations regardless of the designed system; the goal must be to manage those wait times.

A pathetic element regarding the state of the voting system in the U.S. is how overcomplicated it has become. Voting ID requirements are a principle example of this aspect for they are irrelevant and actually exacerbate the problem due to the difficulties some have in acquiring appropriate IDs. The purported purpose of voting IDs is to eliminate voter fraud. Confusingly voter fraud is hardly rampant and it is economically inefficient to demand IDs to combat such an incredibly small problem. However, if combating voter fraud is still regarded as a moral issue then there is a more effective way to combat it; a method that will also significantly reduce any potential inequality associated with the ability to acquire an appropriate ID.

Instead of using voting IDs a simpler and less expensive solution would be to add one additional element to voting registration. When an individual registers to vote he/she will simply declare a 4-digit voter PIN number. Then when this individual goes to vote the identification procedure in acquiring a ballot will simply require giving the correct name and voter PIN number. The election worker will then check the number and if correct hand over a ballot and cross the name off.

If the name and voter PIN do not match up, the potential voter has one of two actions available. First, the voter can display a valid state or federal ID confirming his/her identity. Second, each voter will be allowed to answer a “security question”, similar to those asked when individuals forget their computer passwords, which was filled out on the new voter registration form. Inability to comply with either of these steps will result in the election worker asking the potential voter to leave. Note that forgetting a voter PIN number will be very difficult because it will be listed on an individual’s voter registration card. For absentee voting the voter PIN number would be required just below the signature and dating portion of the ballot. There is a voter ID number given upon registration, but it is longer and not uniquely determined making it more difficult to manage; however, the issued voter ID number could work fine as well.

Another criticism in both 2010 and 2012 U.S. elections was the reduction of time available to conduct early voting, which some believe was an indirect attack against minority voting capacity. The chief purpose of early voting is to accommodate those who would be unable to vote or face great stress in voting on Election Day. Individuals making criticism against more restrictive early voting must tread carefully because keeping polling areas open on various days obviously requires spending money, money that both state and local governments have in less supply due to the slow recovery from the Great Recession.

Also most local election officials, not surprisingly, see changes in the voting system in terms of cost. Most early voting increases long-term workload, yet states tend not to hire anywhere near the amount of temporary workers to compensate for this increased workload. Therefore, most election officials have to work longer at typically a greater inconvenience level at the same general salary. Also the time between elections does not allow for the creation of a “familiarity groove” of sorts. Basically because elections occur once every two years, most early voting coordination seems like it is happening for the first time, especially if temporary help is new, thus there is little significant consistency; this consistency reduces workload both literally and psychologically.

The best strategy to address early voting seems to be utilizing no excuse absentee ballots, which could be picked up at Federal Buildings, police departments or post offices for no charge. After voting these ballots can be mailed to the appropriate election office. However, there would have to be a minimum date of return for effective early voting processing on the ballot consistent among all states. For example a domestic no-excuse absentee ballot would have to be postmarked no later than five days prior to the election date. Some would argue that online balloting can take the place of mailed ballots, but either security or cost concerns for online balloting will almost always be significant enough to limit its role in major elections. Also despite what some appear to believe wide swatches of the country do not have routine access to the Internet, which could create problems for an unsupervised and unorganized voting period and disenfranchise some voters.

One point of note is that while there are questions to the utility of early voting in increasing turnout rate,1-3 expansion of Election Day registration (EDR) may not be appropriate. There is evidence to suggest that EDR does increase voter turnout rate, but from a logical perspective it offers the highest probability to generate voter fraud.4,5 Also EDR expansion will further increase the workload of election officials and increase wait times for all voters. The purpose of EDR is strange because it validates and encourages laziness. Registering to vote is not difficult, even despite the effort of some to make it so, and people typically have sufficient time (months to years), thus failure to be successfully registered during election season is purely the fault of the unregistered individual.

Finally the Federal government may have to expand its role when states and districts fail at their administrative responsibilities. The Federal government should create a minimum threshold for discrimination complaints against a particular district/state and if that threshold is met, then it should strip the autonomy of that district/state to conduct elections. Some may argue that this is an unjustified reach of government power against state rights, but those making such an argument would be incorrect because those ‘encroached upon’ areas have only themselves to blame because they did not fulfill the responsibilities associated with its afforded power. Also the Elections Clause of the Constitution affords the Federal government the power to circumvent state power when it comes to election regulations.

A voter PIN number should eliminate almost all voter fraud as well as be convenient enough to keep the actual vote casting process fair. A stronger “refereeing” role needs to be taken by the Federal government to ensure that states behave appropriately and fairly when conducting elections. Finally appropriate access to early balloting through availability of absentee ballots should ensure that everyone who wants to vote would have the opportunity to do so. Overall creating and maintaining an effective, fair and honest voting system is rather simple if one does not attempt to derail it through the addition of unnecessary complexities.

Citations –

1. Burden, B, et Al. “The effects and costs of early voting, elections day registration, and same day registration in the 2008 elections.” Pew Charitable Trust. Dec. 21, 2009.

2. Fitzgerald, M. “Greater Convenience but not Greater Turnout: The Impact of Alternative Voting Methods on Electoral Participation in the United States.” American Politics Research 2005. 33:842-67.

3. Gronke, P, Galanes-Rosenbaum, E, and Miller, P. “Early Voting and Turnout.” PS: Political Science and Politics. 2007. 40:639-45.

4. EAC. “The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 on the Administration of Elections for Federal Office 2007-2008: A Report to the 111th Congress.” U.S. Election Assistance Commission. June 30, 2009.

5. Leighley, J and Nagler, J. “Electoral Laws and Turnout: 1972-2008.” Paper presented at the Fourth Annual Conference on Empirical Legal Studies, University of Southern California. 2009.

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