In the wake of a landmark survey showing that registration problems blocked as many as 3 million eligible voters from casting ballots last November, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are hunting once again for ways to fix the broken election system.
The most likely targets for legislative action this year are voter registration and the obstacles that snarl the absentee ballot process for millions of military and overseas voters. There's also growing interest in collecting better data to measure how well states run their elections, using yardsticks and performance rankings.
Voter registration, which emerged as the No. 1 problem hampering voters last year, will top the list. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who took over in January as chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, plans to introduce a bill to revamp the voter registration system later this year.
"Democrats believe it is too hard for people to register and vote; Republicans believe it is too easy to register and vote fraudulently," Schumer told National Journal. "There may be a way to solve both problems simultaneously through new technology and forge a better bipartisan solution."
Schumer signaled his interest in voter registration last week, when he called on the Justice Department to sue states that fail to comply with a federal law governing how voter registration materials are disseminated. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires agencies that administer food stamps and unemployment benefits to also hand out voter registration materials, Schumer wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, but many fail to do so.
"That alone shows that voter registration is high on his agenda," noted J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center.
A hearing on voter registration last month before Schumer's Rules Committee was the first in what will be a series of hearings on election issues, including the ballot problems facing military and overseas voters. Two House panels also have held hearings recently on lessons learned from the 2008 election, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., on March 26 introduced a bill that would allow eligible citizens to register and to update their voter registrations online.
Despite some improvements since Congress approved the Help America Vote Act in 2002, last year's election pointed up the chronic problems that continue to plague American voting. These turn out to have been even worse than many commentators concluded at the time, according to the landmark 2008 Survey of the Performance of American Elections.
Conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the survey found that in addition to as many as 3 million voters turned away due to registration problems, roughly 2.2 million registered voters were excluded for lack of proper identification; 1.9 million could not find their polling place; and 2.6 million left because of long lines.
"It's the first really good, empirical read we've had on these questions," said Yale Law School professor Heather Gerken, whose recent book, The Democracy Index, calls for a ranking system to measure how well elections are run state by state. "And it turns out that everything that was said about the 2008 election was wrong."
Gerken's argument that states should methodically collect election administration data, and should be subject to performance rankings, attracted attention on Capitol Hill in the previous Congress. Then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton both called for performance rankings in separate bills, and Congress set aside $10 million in a fiscal 2008 supplemental appropriations bill for pilot projects to improve data collection in five states.
"Election administration is a world without data," Gerken said at a Brookings Institution forum last week on her Democracy Index proposal. "One out of five states can't even tell you how many people showed up on Election Day."
State data collection methods are so spotty and inconsistent, said Doug Chapin, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States, that it can be hard to even assess which election problems most need fixing.
"Until we have the data, in many ways we're flying blind on the solutions," he noted. The Pew Center called for improving measurements of election performance in a conference titled "Data for Democracy" in December. More recently, Pew has been working with a handful of state and local election officials on finding ways to apply the Democracy Index in their own jurisdictions.
"We're trying to help states think through not only what they'd like to do, but what they're able to do in the field of database or evidence-based reform," said Chapin.
Pew has already produced its own mini-rankings of states in areas such as military and overseas voting. A January Pew report on the challenges facing overseas military voters detailed problems state by state, prompting some lower-performing states to contact Pew for help. Ranking states nationally on such things as their success registering voters and counting ballots would similarly shame election administrators into seeking fixes, Gerken maintains.
Congress has a full plate, of course, and the absence of a full-blown crisis in the last election threatens to push voting system changes to the back burner. But as the MIT report illustrates, the more lawmakers learn about the problems plaguing the nation's voting system, the harder those problems become to ignore.