Voting Reform: Good for the GOP, Too

Jill Lawrence

It takes a lot to get Americans and their leaders exercised about the mechanics of voting. The Florida recount in 2000 passed the threshold and prodded Congress to step up with money to upgrade equipment, databases, and procedures. Thanks to a series of Republican-sponsored state laws imposing new voting restrictions and requirements, followed by images of people waiting in seven-hour lines last week to cast a ballot, this may be another window of congressional opportunity.

So far, the political leaders most publicly incensed by what happened on Nov. 6 and most energized about fixing it are from the party that won big. But Republicans should give serious thought to joining Democrats and even leading the charge. The GOP’s performance among blacks, Latinos, and women ranged from poor to abysmal, leading some in the party to say that it’s time to stop blocking meaningful immigration reform. Adding voting reform to the agenda would be another step in putting a more caring, tolerant face on a party that badly needs it.

It wouldn’t be much of a political risk. A new MacArthur Foundation poll found that 88 percent of people who voted this year are strongly or somewhat supportive of national voting standards. And it might even push the party toward a shift in focus, from trying to restrict voting to crafting policies with appeal to diverse voters.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., says he was appalled by what he saw in some precincts in his suburban Washington district, and, yes, it was mostly minority voters standing in those long lines. “In the 21st century, there is no excuse for this,” he says. Connolly plans to introduce a bill in the next Congress that would offer states and localities financial incentives to standardize registration procedures, early-voting periods, ID requirements, and the ratio of voters to machines (it’s now 750-to-1 in his state, he says, compared with 200-to-1 in neighboring Maryland).

“I think it’s ripe for bipartisan cooperation,” Connolly says of voting reform. “I don’t see this as a partisan issue. Anyone who ever runs for office is going to be affected by this.” Furthermore, he says, “one message that fairly or unfairly got through to a lot of minority voters was that Republicans did not want them to vote. And one way to help clear that up, that that’s not at all your intention, is to support this kind of legislation.”

For Republicans, it isn’t that simple. First, there’s the idea of spending money—Connolly’s plan, by his reckoning, would cost several billion dollars. He considers that a worthwhile investment in democracy. But Republicans believe that voting should not be under federal control, and they may be particularly reluctant to underwrite federal reforms.

The Constitution says that states set the “times, places, and manner” of holding federal elections, “but the Congress may at any time by law make or alter such regulations.” Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., says that Congress since 2000 has been giving the federal government more control over election functions that belong to state and local officials under the Constitution. He casts voting reform as “a state-sovereignty issue.” “I’m skeptical of ‘incentive’ structures that might actually function as de facto mandates from Congress to the states,” he said in an e-mailed statement.

As secretary of state in Indiana, Rokita wrote and implemented one of the first stringent voter-ID laws in the country. But in some respects his state has made voting easier by instituting online voter registration. And Rokita helped establish a system allowing residents to visit any of several Vote Centers in their county to obtain a proper ballot. “That’s a great example of innovation at the state level, and I fear that top-down federal solutions would squelch that kind of innovation,” he wrote in the e-mail.

That’s not to say Rokita doesn’t see a role for the federal government. For instance, he has introduced a Voter Registration Integrity Act that would require state motor-vehicle departments to determine if people registering cars want to vote in their new state, and to notify their old state to remove them from the voter-registration rolls.

Bills like that hint at openings for reform, says Richard Hasen, a professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Law, who wrote The Voting Wars and runs the Election Law Blog. “There are things that could be traded off if there’s interest in a deal,” he says, including making it easier to clean up voter rolls and improving the way military voters cast their ballots. He has suggested a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission headed by someone like Sandra Day O’Connor. But so far, he says, “I have not heard from any Republican legislators who are interested in this.”

Taking up the banner of voting reform clearly is not a short-term path for GOP political gain. Most of the problems at the polls this month were in urban areas where few people vote Republican, and it will take more than this one cause to change that dynamic. Still, the party could do worse than to get on board—if not in Congress than in state legislatures. It would be an investment in a potentially competitive future and perhaps a way of hastening its arrival. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the law school at which Richard Hasen is a professor. It is the University of California-Irvine School of Law.

A version of this article appeared in print as "Making Amends."