We can build on agreed-upon election fundamentals
This is the second in a three-part series on election integrity. The first part examined the election of 1876 and the third will discuss why all Americans should oppose efforts to politicize vote-counting.
The 2024 presidential election promises to be perhaps the most contentious and fiercely fought in history. Not since the Civil War has the nation been cleaved so dangerously in two and, for the first time since 1876, massive protests and even large-scale armed insurrection seem distinct possibilities. Each side is convinced that the other will destroy the nation — Republicans accuse Democrats of trampling on personal and religious freedoms in their drive to turn America socialist while Democrats accuse Republicans of sacrificing democracy to Donald Trump's cryptofascism.
The two sides seem to agree on only one thing: The other side is cheating in order to win.
Republicans insist that Democrats are manipulating election laws to promote widespread voter fraud in heavily Democratic areas, mostly among African Americans in cities. Democrats allege that Republicans are passing laws in states they control to suppress the vote in heavily Democratic areas, mostly among African Americans in cities. Democrats insist this focus on Black voters is no coincidence while Republicans deny they have targeted any particular group.
The problem, then, is weighing the potential for voter fraud against laws necessary to prevent it. Although except for isolated cases, voter fraud has been proven to be a hoax, many on the right have been persuaded that election mechanisms are not secure and honest vote counts may be under threat. As a result, in their view, tightening the rules for voting, either by demanding picture identification or limiting such conveniences as mail-in voting or drop boxes for ballots, is justified. And so, hoax or not, election security has become an issue that must be both acknowledged and dealt with in a manner that is not biased to the left or right but instead is evidence based.
At the base of this conundrum is a debate on whether voting is a right or a privilege, when in fact it is both. While living in a society where one can freely cast a vote without fear of violent reprisal is no doubt a privilege, a democracy will crumble if voting is also not considered a right. Election security and voter suppression are, then, two sides of the same coin. Consequently, unless a means can be found to persuade a substantial population of both Democrats and Republicans that election results are fair, the 2024 doomsday predictions by pundits on both sides could well become a reality. Complicating this problem is the refusal by the extreme factions of each party to accept compromise, and these groups make far more noise than the mainstream, a good deal of it on social media and cable news.
To tune out at least some of the vituperation, a solution must be found that both sides, however grudgingly, can accept. This means addressing each side's concerns. Fortunately, there are still some fundamentals that lend themselves to productive discourse.
For example, most Americans still believe that a successful democracy entails majority rule by eligible voters. Even eligibility is not really at issue. No one is proposing that children be granted the vote, nor those presently incarcerated for felonies. There is also broad agreement that no one should be denied the vote because of their race, religion or gender. Democrats claim Republicans are defying that credo; Republicans deny it. What is more, the right defends its new legislation with the claim that anyone who really wants to vote can do so.
That is to some degree correct. Legally preventing people from voting is no longer as simple a proposition as it once was. During the Jim Crow era, voter suppression was easily achieved, but the contrivances of that period — literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses and property requirements, as well as more exotic measures such as South Carolina's "Eight Box Law," in which a voter needed to match his ballot with the right slot — are no longer available. Strict voter identification requirements, closing polling places, or restricting early and mail-in voting can make voting ponderous, time consuming and massively inconvenient, but unlike the Jim Crow laws, it does not de jure prevent a committed citizen from casting a ballot.
Democrats argue, however, that making voting exceptionally difficult is, in fact, voter suppression. Many African Americans, especially the elderly, do not have driver's licenses nor any of the other forms of identification Republicans have deemed acceptable. Limiting the number of polling places, curtailing mail-in and drive-by voting and restricting early voting, especially "Souls to the Polls" Sunday voting, they insist, are specifically designed to discourage African Americans from casting their votes.
To ensure election integrity without suppressing the vote, therefore, requires states that have enacted "election security" legislation to also provide the means for every citizen to both easily establish eligibility and develop standards that prevent voting from becoming an onerous chore. For example, those states that have enacted strict identification requirements should also provide for a simple and convenient means for impacted voters to obtain an acceptable document. One way would be to provide a voter card complete with photo when an eligible person registers. If the registered voter moves, the state should provide an updated card on proof of change of address.
In order to ensure access, states would need to provide an accessible polling station based on population — one station for every certain number of voters — adequately staffed and with sufficient voting machines to prevent long waits. The smaller the window to cast ballots, the more voting machines would be required to handle the longer lines, an exact formula for which could be developed by a basic time/motion analysis.
States would also need to ensure that no voter is more than a certain number of miles from a polling place, which would benefit rural residents, where Republican power is currently centered. If Republicans want to restrict the distribution of mail-in ballots to those requesting them, states must provide easy and prompt access for those seeking to vote by mail. (Mail-in ballots are also something of a double-edged sword, since traditionally Republican voters have used them as much or more than Democrats.)
While there is obviously no guarantee that any of these modifications to proposed voter security legislation will mollify detractors on either the left or the right — and even less of a guarantee that they will be enacted — presenting a reasonable program that recognizes the fear on either side of the issue is the best way to persuade those who can be persuaded of the good faith of the other. In addition, if those contesting these new laws are forced to resort to the courts, it will be much more effective to be able to present a workable solution rather than simply a complaint.
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