Strengthening the Right to Vote

Today, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will convene to address the state of the right to vote after the 2012 election. Prompted by the long waits President Obama criticized in his victory speech on November 6, the Senate is now the official arbiter of dozens of election reform proposals.

Post-election articles and columns explore many worthy suggestions. Two ideas which I believe would have a significant impact are universal voter registration and weekend or holiday voting.

Universal voter registration -- also known as automatic or permanent registration -- is the quickest way to increase voter participation in our nation and it promises to make Election Day go more smoothly. As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder suggests, registration could be triggered when a person turns 18, or when they attain citizenship. Eliminating questions about registration will reduce delays at voter check-in and the administrative headaches of provisional voting in the polling place. If we can enforce selective service registration at 18, we can do it for voting. The Pew Center on the States is currently engaged in a great experiment with seven states to build a platform that will enable such a system.

Weekend or holiday voting is another win-win proposition. The organization "Why Tuesday" has enumerated the benefits: with fewer job conflicts, more working people will vote and more volunteers will be available to serve as poll workers. More poll workers is the not-so-secret-weapon against long lines. The original reason for Tuesday voting -- allowing travel time for voters in an agrarian society to reach the county seat without breaking the Sabbath -- is no longer necessary. Today, people vote in their neighborhoods, sometimes within walking distance. Plus, early voting demonstrates that we can hold multi-day elections. An alternative to weekends is a national holiday, although that has raised the hackles of some merchants. Fortunately, a national holiday, Veterans Day, already follows close on the heels of our November presidential election. What more solemn duty can we perform on Veterans Day than voting, and honoring the hard-won freedoms that our Veterans have defended?

When we discuss ideas besides universal registration and weekend voting, we must be mindful of the lack of uniformity in the U.S. Our nation has roughly 10,000 election jurisdictions. Each can be a fiefdom, different from the rest. Local officials have tremendous power, interpreting voter registration requirements and deciding whose provisional ballots count. They train their own poll workers and delegate resources on Election Day, making the difference between efficient lines and eternal waits for local voters. As demonstrated again in November, so much discretion at the state and local level can allow some election officials to misuse their authority in ways that may suppress the vote and disenfranchise their opponents.

Unlike other countries, election equipment varies widely from Alaska to Wyoming. Voters in some towns mark circles on optical scan ballots like a standardized test. Others connect arrows beside candidates' names. There are ballots that only display numbers, and no names. Many places use touch screens that show an entire ballot on a single page, but have no paper trail. And others, like ours in Cook County, can have 15 pages of screens and a long paper trail that each voter may take the time to review and verify.

Even Election Day hours differ from place to place with polls closing from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. One state may offer no-excuse Mail Voting, while its neighbor restricts it to seniors. A state may have weeks of Early Voting, or days of Early Voting, or no Early Voting at all. So proposals which castigate one county for long Early Voting lines, when another county doesn't even offer Early Voting, is not a national fix for long lines.

One size does not fit all. Clearly, a move toward national standards and best practices would eliminate confusion and give voters the same access to voting, regardless of where they live. We need more uniformity in everything from voter registration practices to the number of early voting days and Election Day hours.

In pouring through pages of ideas, I urge the Senate to consider what is most relevant to the most people in the most places. Universal registration, weekend or holiday voting and a move toward national standards are a winning combination for improving American elections.