When President Barack Obama paused in his victory speech, thanking voters for waiting in long lines to vote but noting 'we have to fix that', one might have assumed that reform would come from the top. Within a few weeks, Representative George Miller (D-CA7) introduced the SIMPLE Voting Act to ease ballot access and increase turnout. Mirroring his proposal was Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE) with the FAST Voting Act (S. 3635) intended to provide incentives for States to invest in practices and technology to expedite voting at the polls and simplify registration. Both bills were immediately referred to their respective House and Senate committees where they stayed until they became null and void with this week’s swearing in of the 113th Congress.
While I’m happy to see Federal law makers introducing electoral reform legislation clearly written to help voters, policies expanding registration and easing ballot access, unfortunately do not rank high on Congress’ agenda. In fact, as this presidential election has shown, interested parties seem inclined to take advantage of the decentralized and disorganized system for partisan gain. Little is done at the national level to curb such behavior, and affected voters have weak legal foundation to right these wrongs. We can’t even get Congress to confirm nominees to the Election Assistance Commission, which hasn’t had a full commission in years.
Voting rights and rules are in fact largely determined at the state and local level, and national legislation tends only to suggest change and provide appropriate incentives. A national affirmative commitment to the right to vote would lay the foundation for consistent voting rules nationwide. While this change is necessary and important for ensuring the protection of the right to vote, it will take time.
What's a frustrated voter to do?
In fact, the inertia at the federal level as well as the absence of overarching electoral rules is actually an opportunity for electoral reform now, in the places where it is most needed. Since electoral rules are set by states, counties and cities – and with the latter on the front lines of engagement with voters -- we have the ability to propose changes to their city councils or state legislators in ways that truly benefit voters. Resolutions at the local level can extend early voting, increase polling places, call for pre-registration for 17-year-olds, and push the boundaries of current legislation. Between November 2012 and the next national election in November 2014, hundreds of local elections will take place, giving localities plenty of opportunities to experiment with new, progressive and positive electoral rules, all the while working to increase turnout in all elections.
With PromoteOurVote.com, FairVote has developed three proactive campaigns designed to fulfill the President's mandate of 'we need to fix that', starting with local grassroots action.
Passing a local right to vote resolution, complete with steps to improve voter turnout, protect voters, and expand knowledge about voting procedure and policies, corrects the ineptitudes of current electoral rules while bringing attention to the importance of passing an affirmative right to vote amendment at the national level. Our local right to vote resolutions are designed for local government bodies: city councils, county commissions or school boards. The resolutions pledge to examine local electoral rules, as well as revise and expand the language to better reflect voter needs.
Political actors often stress the importance of the youth voter, yet little is done to redress the difficulties facing college voters. Local resolutions committing to concrete actions to ease registration, clarify absentee ballot use and increase polling locations would certainly result in increased voter turnout on campuses.
Community organizations are often the force behind societal and political change. Currently in development, this resolution commits local organizations and chapters such as church groups or rotary clubs to participate in similar activities as the city and campus resolutions.
With these resolutions beginning at the local level and designed for voters to experience free, fair and accessible elections, voters can respond to voter disenfranchisement and election-day obstacles with, "Yes Mr. President, we certainly can fix that." At the very least, attention will be brought to the highly decentralized nature of our electoral system, and voters can make changes that positively affect their voting experiences. Through the efforts of Americans nation-wide, we can also highlight the need for a stronger foundation for America's most basic and important form of civic engagement: voting.
We are sure that FairVote supporters and volunteers will recognize the importance of this movement and realize the idea by generating action nationwide to fix our electoral system for all eligible voters.