A few years ago, as I waited in a long line to vote at my local precinct, I overheard some mumbled complaints about the elderly poll workers assisting with ballots and voter rolls. Some of them were clearly flummoxed by newly installed computer databases and wasted precious minutes searching for names, addresses and other vital identifiers.
Voting in America is already a trial designed to ferret out the hardiest and most committed citizens, someone whispered. Why complicate it further with poorly trained poll workers?
Now comes a new report by the highly respected Pew Center on the States that suggests those longtime poll workers were probably not the problem. They were likely struggling with voter rolls that were riddled with inaccuracies; Pew found that voter registration systems around the country are “plagued with errors and inefficiencies.”
That’s the widespread mess that Republican-led legislatures around the country have responded to over the last few years with a spate of tough new voter ID laws, right? Knowing that voter registration rolls are rife with outdated addresses and misspelled names, they have moved to stave off the threat of fraud, right?
Well, no. If there is any system that is worse off than the nation’s voter registration rolls, it’s the political system that ought to be prepared to fix voter registration. Instead, our politicians are busy dismissing real issues while inventing pseudo-problems that align with their partisan ideals and preconceived notions. Harsh laws that mandate state-sponsored photo IDs will do next to nothing to solve the problems pointed out in the Pew study.
Take dead folks, an estimated 1.8 million of whom are still registered as active voters, according to the Pew report. While history books still revel in examples of elections stolen by voters long deceased, no one has ever reported an instance of a corpse showing up at a polling place.
It seems a bit implausible that a dead voter, no matter how committed to democratic processes he may once have been, would roll up out of the grave and present himself to cast a ballot. The dead, history tells us, prefer to vote by absentee ballot, a problem unaddressed by the requirement for voter ID. (Indeed, GOP-dominated state legislatures have done little to tighten requirements for absentee ballots, though they are associated with most cases of voter fraud.)
Pew found that voter rolls are riddled with errors largely because the system — which depends on each state to keep up with its voters — doesn’t rely on databases commonly used by businesses but instead expects voters to report any changes. Few do. It’s no wonder, then, that in an increasingly mobile society, approximately 2.75 million people have active registrations in more than one state, according to the study.
But the most glaring shortcoming Pew pointed to was this: Nearly a quarter of Americans who are eligible to vote are not registered at all. In Canada, by contrast, 93 percent of eligible voters are registered, the study found. (Thank you, Pew, for using Canada, rather than a European country, for purposes of comparison. Conservatives would immediately dismiss the European example as somehow beneath our standards.)
Pew has recommended remedies, including “establishing new ways voters can submit information online and minimize manual data entry.” That would not only make the voter rolls more accurate, but it would also save money for hard-pressed cities and counties, which are forced to rely on workers to manually enter information.
That makes a lot of sense, but I’m betting it won’t take hold anytime soon. Anything that makes voter registration more convenient — like online registration — would surely drive up the number of eligible voters, especially among the young.
Since so many young adults supported President Obama in the last election — and since many of them trend toward Democratic policies, in general — Republicans are unequivocally opposed. In addition to supporting harsh voter ID laws, GOP-led state legislatures around the country have cut back early voting, ended same-day registration and curbed voter registration drives — all in an effort to suppress the franchise among likely Democratic voters.
This is American exceptionalism?
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)