Democratic leaders in the House and Senate announced the week before last that they are slowing down their push to implement electoral reform before the 2008 election, preferring to wait until 2012. Their logic of "let's wait until we've got it just right before we change it at all" serves as a reminder that waiting for politicians to reform our election system is going to be a long wait.
Although there are legitimate issues complicating the debate -- the question of adequate access to ballots for voters with disabilities, for example -- the electorate has waited far too long for the serious overhaul of the system that the troubled elections of 2000 and 2004 made clear were necessary.
Recently, Neal Rosenstein from NYPIRG, with whom we were on a panel discussion following a screening of our film Election Day at the Culture Project, made the point that the public and politicians pay attention to election reform after a close election. With not only one, but two, extremely close presidential elections in the last decade, public awareness of the problems with our electoral system and a desire to fix them are at an all-time high. However, if the presidential election in 2008 is not a close one, the problems won't have disappeared, but the public and political will to fix them might have.
In his book, Stealing Democracy: The New Politics of Voter Suppression, Spencer Overton, an advisor to our film, makes the point that neither Republicans nor Democrats are truly invested in electoral reform. It's a question of the fox guarding the henhouse -- the status quo benefits incumbents. With highly partisan administration of elections on both the state and local level, implementing even the most sensible of reforms becomes a monumental struggle.
"Despite their perpetual smiles and perfect sound bites, pragmatic politicians and their agents use rules to shape the electorate and win elections. Most would rather have election rules and practices that benefit themselves and their political party rather than their opponents," writes Overton.
Why can't federal, state and local officials get it in place? As Overton noted recently in regards to the slowdown of the House bill, some of the delay is due to partisanship, and some is due to bureaucracy. Entrenched bureaucracy, at every level of government, is difficult to change when there is no clear leadership to prod it along.
"There is some pushback that is local state election officials, county clerks who feel like, 'We've had all this change with HAVA. We don't want more change.' Precinct captains are calling the Hill, pissed off at the possibility of change. There is some of that that should be challenged, But there is no political will on either side of the aisle to get it done," said Overton.
Repeal of felon disenfranchisement laws and implementation of election day registration (as already practiced in seven states) are two examples of substantive reforms that would increase access to voting for millions of Americans. Overton gives an example of the political thinking that would surround such a reform: "[Politicians will think], 'More people will vote against us [for passing the reform] than former felons we'll pick up who will vote for us.' We can't rely on politicians to protect voting rights," says Overton. "They're making political calculations about these things instead of what's in the best interest of voters."
Serious election reform is clearly a daunting task and it requires the buy-in of a huge range of federal, state and local officials. It's not surprising that there have been serious bumps along the way on the road to true reform, but the latest delay is just a reminder of the kind of pressure and grassroots movement it will take to get this done.
Election Day will be screened at the Yearly Kos Convention on Thursday, August 2nd at 9:30am at McCormick Place in Chicago. Spencer Overton will also be speaking at Yearly Kos on Friday, August 3rd at 4:15pm, on a panel called "Ensuring Every Vote is Counted."
For information about future screenings, go to www.electiondaythemovie.com to sign up for the mailing list.