The United States Of America Still Doesn’t Know How To Vote

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Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

A voter checks her ballot in the "Ballot Room" of the Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, Jan. 9, 2012.

You want an argument against American exceptionalism? Take a look at how the nation votes. According to a new report by the Pew Center for The States, the U.S. voting system remains “plagued with errors and inefficiencies that waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections.”

What are the problems? Consider these bullet points from Pew: –Approximately 24 million—one of every eight—active voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.

–More than 1.8 million deceased individuals are listed as active voters.

–Approximately 2.75 million people have active registrations in more than one state.

–Researchers estimate at least 51 million eligible U.S. citizens are unregistered, or more than 24 percent of the eligible population.

Even worse, the partisan reaction to this mess tends to make the situation worse, not better. In recent years, Republicans have pushed for a raft of new laws, including voter identification requirements, that the Brennan Center for Justice estimates “could make it significantly harder for more than 5 million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.”

Voting, it turns out, is a classic example of something the founding fathers got wrong. Federalism, though brilliant in other respects, has created enormous state-by-state complexities and inefficiencies that could be avoided with a modern federal voting system. All we need to do is look north. “Canada, which uses modern technology to register people as well as data-matching techniques common in the private sector, spends less than 35 cents per voter to process registrations, and 93 percent of its eligible population is registered,” the Pew report notes. By contrast, the state of Oregon “spent $4.11 per active voter to process registrations and maintain a voter list” in 2008.

It remains a national shame, and there is no clear route to a rational fix. The issue long ago became a partisan football. Democrats are willing to risk voter fraud to prevent disenfranchisement. Republicans are willing to risk disenfranchisement to prevent fraud. Both sides play to win. And the referees are, more often than not, working for whichever side won the last election. The system is simply not properly focused on the sort of American ingenuity and exceptionalism that politicians love to crow about. Shortly before the 2008 election, I wrote a piece for TIME about the problems. My overview then applies just as well today:

We can go to the moon, split atoms to power submarines, squeeze profits from a 99 cent hamburger and watch football highlights on cell phones. But the most successful democracy in human history has yet to figure out how to conduct a proper election. As it stands, the American voting system is a worrisome mess, a labyrinth of local, state and federal laws spotted with bewildered volunteers, harried public officials, partisan distortions, misdesigned forms, malfunctioning machines and polling-place confusion. Each time, problems pop up on the margins; if the election is close, these problems matter a great deal. Republicans and Democrats predict record turnouts, perhaps 130 million people, including millions who have never voted before. The vast majority will cast their votes without a hitch. But some voters will find themselves at the mercy of registration rolls that have been poorly maintained or, in some cases, improperly handled. Others will endure long lines, too few voting machines and observers who challenge their identities. Long a prerogative of local government, the patchwork of election rules often defies logic. A convicted felon can vote in Maine, but not in Virginia. A government-issued photo ID is required of all voters at the polls in Indiana, but not in New York. Voting lines are shorter in the suburbs, and the rules governing when provisional ballots count sometimes vary from state to state

You can read the rest of that story here.
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