Last week"s release of the report of the election reform commission headed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker has drawn fierce fire from civil rights and electoral reform organizations for recommending that voters be required to present photo identification at the polls. Because the ID recommendations in isolation would shrink the electorate, many reformers have pronounced the Baker-Carter recommendations DOA.
We believe it a mistake to condemn the entire report because of the understandable voter ID objections. Dominated by aging politicians of the creaky two-party duopoly, the Commission on Federal Election Reform certainly was less than bold in many important areas. But building on his vast experience observing elections around the world and experiencing elections in the South, Carter earned bipartisan support for several forward-looking recommendations.
The commission"s boldest call is for universal voter registration, a practice used by many democracies around the world in which all eligible voters are automatically registered to vote. Universal registration would add more than 50 million unregistered Americans-nearly three in 10 eligible voters-to the voter rolls. These potential voters are disproportionately under 25, low-income and people of color. Their absence from the voter rolls helps to explain the shocking disparities in our voter turnout based on traditional measures of class status: income, education and race.
Of course, the devil is in the details, and the commission fails to outline a clear plan for how the government would ensure that all eligible voters are registered. But if implemented fully, this would be one of the single most important government civil rights actions since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Remarkably, James Baker, architect of the Bush campaign"s post-election strategy in Florida in 2000, joined Carter in a New York Times oped on September 23rd calling for universal registration. They wrote that the government should "assume the responsibility to seek out citizens to both register voters and provide them with free ID's that meet federal standards. States should open new offices, use social service agencies and deploy mobile offices to register voters."� Once registered, people would stay registered; the report"s goal is that "people would need to register only once in their lifetime."�
Other commission recommendations respond directly to problems in our recent elections. They include:
Nonpartisan election officials. In the wake of presidential races in which Florida"s former secretary of state Katherine Harris and Ohio"s Ken Blackwell made clearly partisan decisions affecting a tightly fought national race, the commission calls for nonpartisan election officials. This would help rid our elections of the appearance of fraud-and might dissuade actual fraud.
Paper trails. Heeding a rising tide of grassroots activism founded on a mistrust of the privately owned voting equipment companies that run our elections, the commission calls for a paper audit trail that has been verified by each individual voter.
National elections assistance. Challenging the majority view of the old guard National Association of Secretaries of State that in February voted to restore what essentially amounted to the pre-2000 decentralized regime for administering elections, commissioners instead call for ongoing federal funding of elections. They also would strengthen the Election Assistance Commission, established in 2002 to administer some national guidelines.
A revamped presidential primary schedule. The commission supports a dramatic overhaul of the presidential primary schedule. The current system is absolutely bankrupt, with states chaotically advancing their primaries in the hope of gaining candidate attention-but collectively making it even more likely that Iowa and New Hampshire will be the only states that matter. The commission"s recommendation will help boost an alternative dubbed the American Plan, recently supported by the Young Democrats of America.
Although they would bring the United States up to international norms, none of these proposals are the transformative changes that might truly shake up partisan calculations. There"s no call for direct election of the president despite the Electoral College's malfunction in 2000 and the ever-declining number of contested states. Commissioners neglect the potential of instant runoff voting despite recent high-profile elections with non-majority winners and "spoilers."�
The report is equally silent on establishing a constitutional right to vote, despite the obvious adverse impact on elections of having more than 13,000 jurisdictions able to make independent decisions about running federal elections. It overlooks how nonpartisan redistricting, campaign finance reform, fusion and proportional voting are necessary means to take on the shocking lack of voter choice and distortions in representation in our legislative elections. It doesn"t even propose ideas like citizens assemblies to at least put such fundamental reform proposals on the table.
In addition, liberals on the commission had to accept a trade-off to secure conservative support for policies designed to increase the voter rolls so dramatically. That tradeoff was a series of measures designed to address concerns about voter fraud, such as presenting photo IDs at the polls, regulating voter registration processes and preventing people from registering to vote in more than one state.
Some of these anti-fraud proposals are problematic, particularly if adopted in isolation by states ignoring other recommendations in the report. Absentee voters-who are disproportionately well-off-need only sign their ballot to prove validity, while voters who show up at the polls would have to present a photo ID. And although the commission recommends IDs be free, some states may still charge fees and establish other practical barriers that would be tantamount to a modern-day poll tax.
The reality is that the number of votes affected by fraudulent activities is dwarfed by voting barriers like lack of universal voter registration. But if a candidate you prefer loses because of fraudulent votes, as some argue happened in last year"s razor-close gubernatorial race in Washington, fraud is a very big deal. Voters certainly demand that politicians "play by the rules,"� and in exchange for universal registration, democracy advocates should agree on what steps to prevent fraud would be acceptable.
The commission"s greatest flaw is calling on states to lead what should be a national system. There is no doubt that some states will abuse these recommendations, jumping to require photo IDs while not acting to register all eligible voters. The current leadership in Congress and many states certainly has put pro-democracy advocates on the defensive, struggling simply to maintain access to the polls for racial minorities and the poor.
But Republican and Democratic leaders are both now unpopular among most Americans, and ignore reasonable steps toward free and fair elections at their political peril. Advocates should make fixing our elections a litmus test of support. As part of a proactive democracy strategy, we should not be afraid to support what"s good in the commission"s report and oppose what"s bad.
Certainly it is high time to call for clean and complete rolls with 100 percent registration as enjoyed by many other democracies. Who would have thought that James Baker would help lead that call?