Franchise in Foreclosure
The two major political parties are both culprits in this battle over the franchise. Democrats seek to expand the pool of voters among demographics receptive to their message, namely the poor and members of racial minority groups, while challenging the absentee ballots of active members of the military stationed overseas who often affiliate with the Republican Party. Republicans counter by passing legislation that requires government-issued identification in order to vote, and charge partisan-affiliated organizations engaged in voter registration efforts with fraud. Democrats in turn label this ballot box suppression.
Both parties have legitimate gripes, but need to shed their blue and red shaded spectacles for the greater good of democracy with a small "d." Congress did pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, in part a response to the irregularities that tainted Florida's 2000 presidential vote, but has since failed to provide promised funding to states and localities who administer elections, resulting in what some have labeled the "largest unfunded mandate in history."
For the sake of confidence in our government and its institutions, Americans of all partisan and ideological stripes must trust the legitimacy of election results. Voter fraud undermines the very premise of what this nation was founded upon and perpetrators must be duly prosecuted. Along the same lines, our country benefits from expanded political participation by our citizenry, for democracy, simply stated, means the people govern. In a democratic republic like our's, democracy is achieved through leaders we elect. We come closer to this ideal through strides toward universal participation.
The Freedom Museum sponsored an academic conference in September 2007 in partnership with the Center for the Study of the American Electorate titled "Civic Disengagement in Our Democracy." Several of the election-related phenomena specific to the administration of elections were detailed in the report that followed and is available here. I make brief mention of a handful of them below, but I am at a loss for immediate solutions, hopeful that our elected leaders have the foresight and independence to tackle the vexing problems that transcend Washington's partisan divisions and gridlock.
Our polls are run by minimally-trained amateurs, who preside over either dated equipment or new technologies that are beyond their grasp. They are underpaid and overworked, expected to spend a minimum of 14 hours at a polling location on Election Day for the sake of civic duty.
The vast majority balloting is administered by elected officials who identify with one party or the other. While most do their best to remain above the fray of partisan favoritism, is it fair to expect neutrality from party faithful who are elected themselves via the same channels?
On another level, we make it very difficult for voters to go to the polls on election day. In some states, Illinois included, voters must register one month in advance of the election. True, they have since made the process more lenient with a grace period after the deadline, but many voters fail to tune into the election until the waning days of the campaign and may thus be locked out of participating. It is no wonder that two of the states that allow on-site registration the day of the election, Minnesota and Wisconsin, lead the nation in voter turnout percentage.
Moreover, by holding elections on Tuesdays, we make it very difficult for those with familial and occupational obligations to make it to the polls during their defined hours of operation. Representative Steve Israel (D-NY) and American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Norm Ornstein make a compelling case for weekend voting in today's New York Times. Tuesday voting, they contend, is a historical anachronism and Saturday and Sunday voting is a better fit for today's fast-paced world.
Taken together, this list of lamentations will certainly not be resolved in the 11 days that remain before Election Day, and I am hopeful that they are not decisive factors in determining the outcome any any contested race. I do know that our country wins when we exercise a fundamental right now bestowed upon all adult citizens, and therefore encourage you to make your vote count on November 4th.