While not disastrous, the problems with the nation's voting system exposed this year are tenacious, and federal and state officials can no longer afford to ignore them.
It's only luck that the long lines, machine breakdowns and registration disputes that bogged down voting in Ohio, Pennsylvania and elsewhere did not land the election in court. Had President-elect Barack Obama's victory margin been less decisive, ugly legal disputes could have erupted on any number of fronts.
In setting out to fix America's broken voting system yet again, lawmakers should think both small and big. That is, Congress and the incoming Obama administration should immediately correct glaring problems with the 2002 Help America Vote Act. These include the law's unworkable requirement that voter identifying numbers match with federal records, and its failure to set uniform rules for counting provisional ballots.
With an incoming president who built his election on voter participation, and whose party is in charge of Congress, a serious election overhaul is within reach.
At the same time, officials at all levels of government should seize the chance to step back and examine the election system as a whole, with an eye on comprehensive changes. Instead of tinkering around the edges, as the 2002 law did, it's time to ask: What would an ideal election system look like? Is there a new model for how Americans should register to vote, for example, or cast their ballots?
The obvious problems with voter registration this year, which led to lawsuits claiming both voter fraud and voter suppression, have thrust that issue front and center. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., is already working on legislation that would overhaul the voter registration rules. Voter protection advocates are pushing hard for so-called universal voter registration, which would automatically place eligible voters on the rolls based on government databases such as driver's license and Social Security records.
A federal registration system faces huge obstacles, of course. The debate over universal registration is often tied to the debate over a national ID card, which civil liberties advocates strongly oppose. State and local election officials will resist federal mandates. And the same problems that plagued mismatched statewide voter lists this year, such as typos that incorrectly blocked voters from the rolls, could turn creating a federal voter registration list into a nightmare.
Still, the movement to give government officials a bigger role in voter registration is well under way. Short of federally run, universal voter registration, several states furnish promising models for putting state governments in charge of signing up voters. Election officials in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and six other states have implemented Election Day registration, for example.
State officials report that Election Day registration both increases turnout and reduces the chances of fraud or error. Minnesota's Election Day registration system, which has earned high marks [PDF] from voting experts, is now in the spotlight due to the pending recount in the Senate race between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken. Minnesota has also flirted with automatic, statewide voter registration, and is on the vanguard of the trend toward "portable" registration, which allows voters to change addresses without re-registering.
"I think you're going to see both continuing experimentation and mandates, whether it be from Congress or the state legislatures, to move to a more permanent and portable registration system," said Michael Caudell-Feagan, director of Making Voting Work, a project of the Pew Center on the States.
In Arizona and Washington state, voters may now register online. The systems have been successful, say election experts, in part because voters are unlikely to misspell their own names when typing them in. They also spare election officials the burden of processing mountains of paper registration forms. In 32 states, election officials allow voters to at least verify their voter registrations online.
This election also spotlighted the need to re-examine early voting, which soared to include nearly a third of the electorate. While credited with preventing a systemwide meltdown due to huge turnout, early voting also raised questions. These include: How can election officials balance the high cost of staffing polling places with the heavy demand for early voting? There should be uniform standards for both the time frame and the reporting of early voting, according to Reed College political science professor and early voting expert Paul Gronke.
Other fixes on the table should include mandatory federally funded audits for elections, which take place sporadically if ever. Partisan elected officials should step aside and let nonpartisan administrators take over. Deceptive practices such as misleading fliers and messages should be made a federal crime. Alternatives to precinct-based voting, such as the vote centers used in Colorado, should be encouraged. And the basic building block of election administration -- recruiting and training poll workers -- must be shored up.
It's a tall order. But with an incoming president who built his election on voter participation, and whose party is in charge of Congress, a serious election overhaul is within reach. Some changes can and should be made immediately. But Washington should also look to the election of 2020, noted Ohio State University law professor Edward B. Foley. That's the first year that children born in 2000, the year of Bush v. Gore, will be eligible to vote. As Foley put it, "We don't have the immediate crisis now, and that's an opportunity to structure a process that can lead to long-term reform."