The United States needs one, uniform set of election laws for federal elections.
By now, one sentence in, many conservatives are apoplectic. They are yearning to point out that Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution quite clearly states, "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof."
I'm well aware of this provision and it is precisely why the federal government cannot just mandate one set of electoral rules absent a Constitutional Amendment.
That doesn't mean, however, that the country wouldn't benefit from having one set of rules. A federal set of rules would end the game being played in states across the country in which Republicans attempt to implement stricter electoral rules and Democrats seek more lenient rules. The loser then appeals to the Courts to play referee (see today's decision halting implementation of voting changes in Ohio for an example of how this process plays out: http://tinyurl.com/mlthj9l).
Partisans use buzzwords like reducing voter fraud or making it easier for people to vote. But at its core, both parties are seeking to manipulate the electoral system to benefit their party. Democrats want longer voting periods, more lenient registration rules, etc. because members of their coalition (minorities and young voters) vote in higher numbers when it is easier to do so. Republicans, by contrast, like voter ID laws because they reduce the number of minority and young people who vote.
After all, if the goal was simply reducing voter fraud why would North Carolina's legislature have prohibited the use of college IDs, which have a picture and an expiration date, from serving as a form of acceptable identification for voting purposes? Showing these IDs would make it almost impossible to commit in person voter fraud.
The crazy thing about these battles is that I see a very easy compromise that would allow both parties to get something that they want from the election laws.
Democrats should concede on an identification requirement to vote. Many of their legitimate concerns about such laws can be mitigated by making the documents necessary to obtain an ID free and readily accessible, and by implementing the law in, say, 5 years.
As Republicans appropriately point out, there are a bevy of activities in society that require identification. An interview subject even reminded me that Democrats required people to present photo ID to enter their 2012 convention. Additionally, the bipartisan Baker-Carter commission recommended that Americans present an ID to vote.
In exchange, Republicans should agree to online voter registration, same day registration, and expanded early voting. After all, you can buy just about anything on the internet, and we are regularly required to provide Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, etc. online.
In an increasingly busy society in which employers require longer hours, jobs require more travel, and people struggle to achieve everything that they need to get done each day, expanded voting opportunities also make sense.
Expanded voting opportunities would also reduce the lines at polling places, which can stretch for hours in some places in hotly contested elections.
Both sides would get something that they want and the system would be fairer because all Americans would vote under one set of rules. This uniformity seems especially desirable for presidential elections where, currently, some Americans vote weeks before others for the same office.
The law should also encompass the recommendations of the bipartisan Ginsberg-Bauer commission. We need to take politics out of election administration to the greatest degree possible, and these recommendations would help accomplish that goal.
How to achieve such an electoral scheme without running afoul of the Constitutional provision mentioned above? Use the carrot of federal funding to motivate cash-strapped states to adopt the uniform set of rules. The federal government has used this method to achieve many public policy goals (linking highway funding to the state drinking age, etc).
What would an ideal system look like in my view? Americans would start voting 12 days before the first Tuesday after a Monday in November. Bowing to tradition, we would close the election period on that Tuesday.
This period would mean that all Americans voted with the same basic set of information, while allowing flexibility for people who have work commitments. It would also provide two weekends of early voting, which would make it easier for the most time strapped Americans (especially those working multiple jobs) to vote.
Americans should be able to register online and/or at the polls on election day. The technology exists to allow states to implement this recommendation. All Americans would also eventually have to show photo ID to vote.
I'd also like to see a system that automatically restores the voting rights of all non-violent felons upon release from prison (and which provides a process for violent felons to petition for the restoration of their voting rights). This recommendation seems fair.
Is this scheme likely to be implemented? No. But it would be beneficial to the country. It's also precisely the sort of compromise that Congress used to achieve with regularity, but today struggles to make happen.