Print options

February 23, 2013

Obama Calls For US Election Reforms

by Kent Klein

While Americans are proud of their democracy, some are saying the election system is not working as it should.  Reports of long lines at the polls have led President Barack Obama to call for reforms in the way Americans vote.

As President Obama celebrated his re-election last November, he acknowledged that too many people waited too long to cast their ballots.

In his State of the Union address in February, the president said long waits at the polls are a betrayal of America's ideals.

He told the story of 102-year-old Desiline Victor of Miami, Florida. "When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say," he said.

Obama announced a new commission to study the electoral process, led by the top attorneys from his 2012 campaign and that of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

While the commission looks for answers, others are debating exactly what is wrong with American elections.

At Washington's Heritage Foundation, senior legal fellow Hans von Spakovsky says Obama exaggerated the problem. "And the myth is that everyone had to wait in long lines to vote on Election Day last November.  We know that is not true.  MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) did a study on this, and the average wait time across the country was only 14 minutes," he said.

But the world's oldest democracy can do better, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts' David Becker, who helps states improve their election procedures.  He says lines are too long, and an antiquated voter registration system is to blame.  "Because inaccurate, out-of-date voter records are one of the primary causes of problems, all the way through Election Day -- polling place problems, lines, provisional ballots and other things that can cause delays and cost extra money," he said.

Becker wants greater automation of the process, with more states allowing voters to register by Internet.

Von Spakovsky says many states are already making reforms, checking with each other to see whether a voter has moved or is registered in more than one state.

And he says the president's commission duplicates the work of an existing government board, whose seats Obama has not filled. "There is already a federal agency - it is called the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, that was started by Congress in 2002 - whose very job is to make best-practices recommendations to the states," he said.

But David Becker is hopeful that Obama's commission will make a difference. "When people at the state level, at the national level, decide that this is important, that our American democracy is a beacon to the rest of the world, and it is incumbent upon us to fix it and improve it in our own country, that is a positive thing, and I think the president's commission will be a contribution to that effort," he said.

If so, Desiline Victor and other voters will find their basic American right much easier to exercise in future elections.