The passage this October of the “Help America Vote Act” is the product of long and hard work and difficult compromises by members of both the House and Senate, as well as the tireless efforts of election reform advocates around the country. The compromise bill takes historic steps forward, and regrettably, erects barriers at the same time.
Many of the bill’s provisions are major steps forward in advancing election administration and in ensuring the accurate casting and counting of votes. The requirements that states adopt error-rate standards, allow voters to correct their ballots, and cast provisional ballots if not on the voter lists will all help voters be heard and counted as they wish. Funding for the states to replace antiquated machinery and the requirement that all states develop statewide computerized voter lists will significantly improve election administration. All these are major advances.
However, the new and overly restrictive voter identification provisions will cause substantial difficulty for large numbers of voters, and will undoubtedly mean that many eligible voters will be unable to vote. The issue of election fraud raised by proponents of the new provisions is certainly overstated and should not be used to unnecessarily restrict access and intimidate voters. In particular, requiring citizens to show photo or other forms of identification and requiring states to check drivers’ licenses and Social Security numbers, and reject registrations that do not include them, is a recipe for disaster. Congress should have the courage to reconsider these provisions in the future.
The focal point of debate will now shift largely to the states. People concerned with creating the most inclusive and vibrant democracy will need to do three things:
• Fight to ensure that adequate funding is provided for the states to carry out the administrative improvements. The bill clearly does not guarantee funding for the future.
• Monitor and challenge implementation of the identification provisions that discriminate against poor voters, new citizens or people of color. There are better ways to ensure the integrity of elections without impinging on access.
• Seek to focus the state debate on the most fundamental issue: to guarantee the participation of all people in the electoral process. The bill requires states to develop plans for their election changes, with citizen input and public review processes. These plans must not be limited to simply replacing old machinery with new. They should include measures that further encourage voting, such as Election Day Voter Registration and fairer policies for re-enfranchisement of people who have lost their voting rights.
It is essential that we continue America’s historic march toward opening our electoral processes. Real progress will continue to be made by advocates and activists working for reforms that expand the process at every level and bring every member of society into the fullest possible participation. The work does not end here; it is only beginning.
Miles Rapoport is president of Demos, a research advocacy organization, and former Secretary of State of Connecticut. For more information visit: www.demos-usa.org