The Democrats are going on the offensive to make voting easier. Thedraft language in the party’s 2016 platform is much stronger than it was in 2012, and that’s mostly good for democracy.
The party’s shift from its defensive crouch started in the states, with the adoption of automatic-voter registration rules in Oregon, California, West Virginia, Connecticut, Vermont and Illinois. Hillary Clinton endorsed these efforts last summer, and now the national Democratic platform is being written accordingly.
The smorgasbord of measures includes an expected call to restore Voting Rights Act provisions that the Supreme Court weakened as well as a relatively new fight at the national party level for “voting rights for those who have served their sentences,” referring to former felons. Currently, many states delay restoring the vote to ex-felons, and some states have a lifetime ban.
Democrats also will support “expanding early voting and vote-by-mail, implementing universal automatic voter registration, same day voting, ending partisan and racial gerrymandering, and making Election Day a national holiday.” Most important here is the automatic registration combined with Election Day voter sign-up for anyone who isn’t already registered. In most democracies in the world, registration is not a barrier to voting.
The other ideas — more early voting and by mail, and an Election Day holiday, plus an end to gerrymandering — are more complicated. First off, gerrymandering is out of place on this list of reforms. It’s easy for the party currently in the minority, as the Democrats are in most state legislatures right now, to pledge to oppose the drawing of congressional district lines based on partisan advantage. But few Democrats would want to hold the party to that if they win majorities in those bodies.
As for the other ideas, we don’t know which procedures are best for encouraging those who are registered to actually vote. Nor do we known if making Election Day a holiday would help or not.
If people send their ballots in by mail, they lose the sense of voting as a public, neighborhood action. And changing “Election Day” into an extended voting period, as early-voting and vote-by-mail provisions do, has other costs as well. When people get to choose their own personal day to vote, they are casting ballots at different times from their fellow citizens, and possibly without the information that others might have because they waited. The early birds may send in their ballots before the final debates, and without the ability to take into account any news that breaks just before the election.
Finally, mail-in voting is a far more likely source of voter fraud, and could potentially be a major problem.
None of these are necessarily bad ideas, but they have costs as well as benefits.
At the same time, the Democratic platform omits the technical side of voting, which is important. Every precinct should have machines or other mechanisms that work reliably and follow best practices, and every precinct should have enough voting stations. Put too few polling places or working terminals in one part of a city, and you get long lines and discouraged voters.
Overall, a better plank would separate out the reforms that have few costs and clear benefits, especially universal automatic registration. It would then encourage states to experiment with specific rules, including mail-in and early voting — and longer Election Day polling hours. The draft language in the platform applauds some state-based initiatives, but Democrats should make clear what should be federal policy and what leeway the states should have.
If Democrats really care about making voting easier, they also might support consolidated elections instead of separating out local contests on a different dates, something Democrats in particular have done. I’d also favor voting on fewer things (reducing judicial voting, initiatives and referendums), but that’s tougher for a political party to suggest.
All in all? The Democrats’ position on voting is much better than it was in 2012, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
- States have used different methods to automatically register voters, such as motor-vehicle department records. But the systems aren’t foolproof, leaving a need for Election Day registration as a backup.
- Vote-by-mail states don’t require people to show up at their local precincts. Washington and Oregon have full mail-in voting, while other states strongly encourage it.
- Well, I’d support a lower voting age, too, but I don’t expect national Democrats to endorse that one.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.