A Guide To National Election Reform

President Obama's election night victory speechIn his victory speech on election night, President Obama noted the lines that voters faced and observed “we have to fix that.” With some people forced to wait up to seven hours just to vote, legislators and advocates are exploring an array of possible changes aimed at improving the way elections are run. And as several states reduced early voting availability, adopted strict voter photo ID laws, made registration more difficult, long lines were hardly the only form of voter suppression at play in this year’s elections.

A new Penn Schoen Berland poll of 2012 voters, conducted for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, finds broad support for election reforms. 50 percent of voters say they strongly support establishing national standards such as standardizing the hours polls are open, who is eligible to vote, and the design of ballots. Another 38 percent of voters said they were somewhat supportive. Just 12 percent said they were not very supportive or not at all supportive of such a proposal.

At least three bills have been proposed so far on this topic:

1. The Voter Empowerment Act of 2012. Offered by Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) in the House and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in the Senate, this bill would make an array of changes to the election system. Among the reforms would be national rules allowing online voter registration and┬ásame-day voter registration, automatically restoring the right to vote for felons after they serve their sentences, prohibiting elections supervisors from participating in political campaigns, and setting national standards for voting machines. The proposal, introduced earlier this year, has 140 House co-sponsors and four Senate co-sponsors — none are Republicans.

2. The Louis L. Redding Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely (FAST) Voting Act of 2012. Offered by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) this week, the bill would reward states that make voting faster and more accessible with federal challenge grants. The grants would be available to states offering same-day registration, ample early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) has introduced a House version. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI) have signed on as co-sponsors. This approach would be a carrot to encourage reforms, but would still leave the decision to the states.

3. The Streamlining and Improving Methods at Polling Locations and Early (SIMPLE) Voting Act. Offered by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) this week, would require all states to provide at least 15 days of early voting for federal elections and to ensure each voting precinct has sufficient poll workers and machines to prevent lines from ever exceeding one hour.

In addition to these bills, law professor and prominent election law blogger┬áRick Hasen has proposed a blue-ribbon commission on long election lines and advocates a neutral federal elections board. “Nationalize our elections,” he says, “and impose professional nonpartisan administrators. A neutral election board with its allegiance to the integrity of the voting process rather than to a political party should take on the basic tasks of voting.” Tom Perez , the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, is also exploring “national standards for counting provisional ballots for federal elections, to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised by moves close to an election, by appearing at the wrong polling place, or by simple poll workers’ errors.”

In Florida, where lines were among the longest, Gov. Rick Scott (R) and Democratic legislators are also considering state reforms.