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The next election starts now

Matt Sledge // Published November 19, 2008 in The Newport Daily News
With a decisive, largely trouble-free election behind us, it may be hard to remember just how dire the rhetoric about voter fraud was only a few weeks ago. Some talking heads claimed ACORN’s registration drives portended the end of the republic.

Fortunately, on Election Day the weather was, literally and metaphorically, sunny and clear across the nation. Rhode Island did particularly well, with a record turnout of 474,802 voters. Still, we shouldn’t wait until October 2012 to take stock of the lessons learned this year.

The first big lesson, amply illustrated by the overhyped controversy over ACORN, is about voter registration. It turned out there was a lot more smoke than fire over those relatively few faked registrations. Mickey Mouse never showed up to vote, and so far no verified instances of falsely registered voters actually casting ballots have come to light.

When we leave voter registration to unofficial third-party groups, however, problems are bound to emerge. And in our current, decentralized “opt-in” system, the burden is on individual voters to send in registration forms, update their information every time they move, and avoid even the slightest spelling mistakes.

One step towards fixing the current system, advance voter registration, would let 16 and 17 year olds pre-register to vote. When they turn 18 they would be automatically added to the voter rolls. Pre-registration will occur within the reliable and educational environment of a high school civics class, or on computers at the DMV. The legislature has approved pre-registration three times; now is the time to override the governor’s veto.

Beyond youth pre-registration, we should shift the responsibility for registration away from third-party groups and towards the government. That’s how it’s done almost everywhere else in the free world. The technical obstacles involved in implementing voluntary, universal registration are not insurmountable. The potential benefits—in terms of both happier voters and reduced potential for fraud—are great.

In Rhode Island, we can implement Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis’s call to expand early voting, which reduces long lines on Election Day for voters and makes the job of the local canvassers that much easier. There’s also no reason why same day registration—which already allows you to cast a ballot for president—can’t open up the door for voting in all races.

The second big lesson is about the Electoral College: it’s still broken.

President-elect Barack Obama won the national popular vote by a roughly 8 million vote margin. When FairVote analyzed the election results, however, we discovered that a shift of 400,000 votes in seven key states would have swung the Electoral College victory to John McCain—despite the clearly expressed will of the voters.

In 2000, all of us learned that the disparity between the national popular vote total and the Electoral College margin isn’t a matter of mere trivia. Four of 56 presidential elections have failed to go to the winner of the popular vote—a 7.1% error rate. If we used Electoral Colleges to elect our governors (which no sane person has ever suggested), we would have about four succession crises on our hands right now.

This year we did experience one, silent crisis of democracy: the perverse incentives the current Electoral College system creates for presidential candidates to ignore our predictably “blue” state. No presidential or vice-presidential candidate visited after the end of the primaries to ask for our votes. Senator Joe Biden did swing by for a closed-door event to ask for our money (tickets started at $1,000).

There’s a way out: the national popular vote bill that’s already been approved by Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland and Hawaii and endorsed by Senator Lincoln Chafee. After it’s passed by states that control a majority of the votes in the Electoral College, the legislation will guarantee the presidency to whoever wins the election in all 50 states and DC.

74% of Rhode Islanders want a national popular vote. Every state already has the absolute, Constitutional power to appoint its presidential electors (see Article II, Section I), so we won’t need to take the drastic step of altering the Constitution to make that happen. The General Assembly approved the national popular vote bill this year before it was vetoed by the governor.

In 2009 we will have another chance to make “one person, one vote” a reality in this country. Working together with the citizens of other states, we can avoid being ignored again in 2012. We can make every vote, in every state, count.

Matt Sledge is the director of FairVote Rhode Island, a non-partisan, non-profit advocate for election reform online at www.fairvote.org/ri/.