The Republican Party's concerted effort to suppress the vote of those individuals -- primarily minority, low-income, working class and student voters -- who are likely to vote the Democratic ticket in November has refocused attention on the connected issues of enfranchisement and voter turnout, as well as their consequences for the future of our political system. If this were merely an attempt to return Southern states to the Jim Crow era's poll taxes, literacy tests, and voter intimidation, it would be bad enough. But it is more widespread than that, occurring even in Pennsylvania which has no Jim Crow heritage and considers itself "the Cradle of Liberty" with its Liberty Bell and Independence Hall where the Constitution was created. What makes the Pennsylvania case especially egregious is its express purpose -- implicit elsewhere but overtly declared by its proud legislative sponsor -- to have Mitt Romney elected president, as well as benefiting the rest of the Republican ticket. Ostensibly enacted to counter voter fraud, as in most states, authorities in Pennsylvania were hard pressed to document any such cases.
If these efforts are successful, with Romney as president and a Republican-controlled Senate and House, not only will they control two of the three branches of our government but will then be in the position to reinforce the already highly conservative Supreme Court with one or more appointments. This is a situation that any person concerned about civil liberties, constitutional rights, and the power of money and corporations in politics would have to view with acute alarm. If this were to occur through the fair exercise of the will of all of the people choosing to exercise their constitutional right to vote, that would be one thing. But to see the country set back decades by latter-day Jim Crow electoral strategies would be a disgrace.
That is why these efforts need to be exposed for the partisan and undemocratic goals they are pursuing and challenged through all appropriate legal avenues. The stakes are too high to allow another presidential election to be stolen. Fortunately, Mitt Romney and his campaign are currently doing enough damage to their cause to allow one to be cautiously optimistic about the re-election of the president and retaining a majority in the Senate. If that turns out to be the case and House Republicans are suitably chastened by the rejection of the head of the ticket and other defeats, the moderate wing might be emboldened and less committed to partisan obstructionism. The opportunity might then exist for the Democrats to pass legislation that addresses constructively the issues of voter registration and turnout.
And what, specifically, might be done? In their new book, It's Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein make a number of suggestions for reforming the electoral system, with the purpose of making it less partisan, dysfunctional, and disrespected by the majority of the electorate. They believe that, first and foremost, much larger numbers of qualified voters need to be registered and the great majority of them must be encouraged to vote. The continuation of the present situation, where the extreme fringes of the two parties simultaneously pursue widely divergent policies, alienates the moderate middle and discourages their participation which, in turn, prevents them from diluting the impact of the extremes.
Among the measures that need to be done to begin addressing these issues, registration must be modernized by making it possible for citizens to register online -- which 12 states currently do and others are in the process of implementing. It is cheaper and more effective than paper processes. The Federal Government should mandate that any ID required to vote be provided free, as well as any necessary supporting documentation. Access to these documents should be readily available -- through mobile services, if necessary. In addition, voting places should be required to accept valid student IDs.
One of the reforms that Mann and Ornstein view favorably is mandatory voting which is the law in several European countries, most of Latin America, and Australia -- whose model would be the one most likely to work in the U.S. This is the measure which would have the greatest impact on expanding the electorate and mitigating the present dysfunction which they characterize, as follows:
In both primaries and general elections in the United States, party professionals and consultants focus on bases: how to gin up the turnout of the party's ideological base and suppress the turnout of the other side. Nothing has forced discourse and political strategy away from the center to the extreme more than that focus. It has encouraged a concentration on hot-button issues that appeal to the party bases, like guns, abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage, and led to more and more extreme rhetoric and exaggerated positions to accomplish the larger political goals.
Mann and Ornstein concede that, since Americans do not like mandates, "the chance that such a law would pass is, in a favorite phrase of George W. Bush, 'slim to none and slim just left the building.'" However, they are hopeful that we will change our minds if the present "asymmetric polarization" - they blame the Republicans more than the Democrats -- persists much longer. Short of that, early voting by mail -- which is now an option in 34 states and Washington, D.C. -- if expanded nationwide, would have a significant impact on voter participation, especially by working people, seniors, and individuals with disabilities, in long-term care facilities, or without transportation.
A very practical and productive approach to expanding the electorate that Mann and Ornstein propose is changing our customary election day from Tuesdays to weekends. They point out that, contrary to widespread belief that voting on Tuesday is written somewhere in the Constitution, it was originally chosen to fit the needs of our agrarian forebears. Sunday was the day of worship, Monday allowed people time to travel to their county seat where they voted on Tuesday and traveled home afterwards. This makes no sense today since it is a workday for most people who typically have to vote before or after work when lines are long and discouraging. Many simply do not vote at all because of this unnecessary barrier. Changing the national voting day to the weekend (midday Saturday to midday Sunday, for example) would greatly expand turnout, without impinging on anyone's religious obligations.
Something needs to be done, if we are to continue to believe that our government represents all -- or even the majority -- of us. Mann and Ornstein's suggestions for corrective action help point us in the right direction.