Street Corner Soapbox: Voter ID Reform
Three solutions to fix the problems with Voter ID laws.
Texas recently passed a stringent voter ID law, which requires that the name on a voter's ID must exactly match that on the voter rolls. While most voter ID laws impact people without access to approved voter ID – the poor, the elderly, the young, and minority voters – Texas' law affects a much bigger demographic: women.
According to reports, as many as 34 percent of Texas women don't have the proper photo identification to vote. That's for obvious reasons: women are much more likely to change their names due to their marital status. A woman who's recently married or divorced – or who was too busy, say, with child care or work, or both, to go through the bureaucratic hoops of name change – is much more likely to have a disparity between the name on their ID and on the voter roll. Texas allows these women to bring in marriage certificates or proof of divorce or name change in order to vote, but who has the time to dig up this paperwork in that narrow window of time between the start of school and the start of work?
Most media outlets handle this topic the same way. An NPR report, for example, describes the Texas voter ID law as having "unexpected consequences." Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. In the smoke-filled back rooms of the mega churches and Wall Street brokerage firms where these laws were conceived and crafted, that so many women have effectively lost their vote in Texas is not a bug, as we say in the software development biz, it's a feature. Women tend to vote Democratic. If some conservative women as a consequence are also stripped of their right to vote, well, it's God's plan for women to submit to the protector and provider and spiritual leader of their household, right?
But you know my feelings about voter ID laws already. What you'd like to see, probably, is some kind of positive vision, some kind of constructive suggestion on how to make voting better. After all, I'm no House Republican looking to dismantle, say, health care reform without any kind of replacement plan to fix the crappy health-care system we find ourselves in. Instead, I have ideas. To wit:
Same-day voter registration. In Pennsylvania, voters are required to register 30 days before an election. This is completely arbitrary. There's no benefit the state gains from this registration deadline; we have the technology to register voters up to and on Election Day. Young voters are the most impacted by the state's registration deadline, especially college students, who tend to change addresses frequently. (Which is why young voters are also disproportionately affected by voter ID laws.) Students are expected to either register or apply for mail-in ballots within a few days of arriving on campus, failing to do so means losing their vote. Too often, pundits decry the low election turnout of young voters – yet states continually increase the barriers to voting that young people must hurdle. Remove the barriers.
Vote by mail for local elections. Consider this: instead of opening polls and voting on-site, conduct elections solely by mail. Voters would receive their ballots two weeks before the election, and can do research on the candidates online while they simultaneously fill out their ballots, all from the comfort of home, and without the onus of having to appear in a certain place on a certain day – a boon to all who, well, have lives. Not surprisingly, vote-by-mail greatly increases voter participation. Oregon, which has had vote-by-mail for all elections since 1998, has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the country.
But there are problems with vote-by-mail: it often discriminates against voters who change addresses frequently. The young, again. That's why vote-by-mail should be limited to local elections – the elections that suffer the most from poor voter turnout rates, and the elections in which the young are least likely to vote in anyway. Missoula, Montana, for example, implemented vote-by-mail municipal elections in 2007, and voter turnout in city elections jumped from an average of 10 to 15 percent to as high as 50 percent in the 2011 election.
Nonpartisan blanket primary. Also known as the "top-two primary," it's a mouthful, but it's simple. Party primaries are abolished. All candidates of all parties – even independents – appear on the same primary ballot, and you vote for whomever you want. The top two vote-getters reach the general election ballot. It's a great system for districts that lean heavily towards a particular political party, where the primary decides who wins the November election. Instead, it's possible that two candidates from the same party will face off in the general election.
You don't have to look far or long to find an example of why this would work. Take the 2013 Erie County Council District 2 race, for example. In May, Andre Horton beat Lisa Austin in the Democratic primary by ten votes, 964 to 954, in a four-candidate field. On the Republican ballot, there was only one candidate – Ned Smith – who failed to match either Horton's or Austin's vote totals. Yet in November, it was Smith's name that appeared on the ballot, and Horton ran away with the election. In fact, Horton's biggest competition came, not from the Republican Smith, but from Austin, who ran a write-in campaign for the General Election. Despite all the obvious handicaps of a write-in campaign, Austin still garnered more votes than Smith.
In a top-two primary system, the General Election would have featured an Austin-Horton ballot, which would have been more contested and more representative of the district electorate. Instead, a far smaller number of voters decided back in May who would win the November election.
If you sense a theme in these proposals, it's probably this: instead of erecting barriers to voting – like Texas' draconian voter ID law – we should be tearing them down. Instead of having elections decided by small groups of voters – or back-room dealmakers – we should have engaging, contested elections befitting our communities. In short, the outcome of elections should be decided by the people.
Jay Stevens can be contacted at Jay@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @Snevets_Yaj.