Monday, April 18, 2011

Standards and Consequences

In the WSJ, John Fund uses the recent Wisconsin judicial election to look at the variety of voting standards (or lack of standards) across the country. This election's fate was decided when a Republican county clerk realized that she had forgotten to add 14,000 votes from a city into her reported figures. This vote swing put the "conservative" candidate over the top. Fund reflects more broadly on the systems of voting in the US:

Our Constitution decentralizes our election procedures over 13,000 counties and towns, with each counting its votes in its own way. This basic framework is sound, but local practices are too often unsound. In 2005, a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform, headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, issued 87 recommendations on how to clean up our system. Sadly, most have been ignored or implemented only haltingly.

Fewer than half of states exchange updates on voter registration with other states, and many never sufficiently check the accuracy of registration information. Most registration lists are inadequately transparent—they aren't easily searchable and are clogged with ineligible or duplicate voters. Fewer than half the states require some form of post-election audit or manual recount.

The Carter-Baker commission noted that "the electoral system cannot inspire public confidence if no safeguards exist to deter or detect fraud or to confirm the identity of voters." Eighteen of the 21 commission members called for voters to show photo ID at the polls and for more security for absentee ballots.

Some states have since adopted photo ID laws. But too many (like Wisconsin) still do not require any ID to vote. In a time of razor-thin election margins, we can no longer afford such insecurity in our election process.

Also, though one-third of all votes in 2008 were cast before Election Day, safeguards against absentee ballot fraud are still spotty.
Fund's points also have a bearing on the fate of the Electoral College. The National Popular Vote movement attempts to sidestep the process of amending the Constitution by having various states sign onto a compact saying that they will cast their electoral votes not for the candidate who wins that state but for the candidate that wins the national popular vote. This movement could be on the verge of a significant win in California, where an alliance of Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature has formed to push through a bill that would have California join the compact.

As I've written before, this huge range of standards would make switching to a National Popular Vote system problematic. Right now, under the Electoral College, the voting irregularities of one state are somewhat confined to that state: having more rigorous, fraud-deterring standards within a state does not weaken it relative to other states for presidential elections. Moreover, what fraud does occur is often more limited in its impact.

If the Electoral College were nullified by the National Popular Vote compact going into effect (which would only happen once enough states to reach 270 electoral votes sign on), states would have an incentive to have as many votes---and as many fraudulent votes---flood the national system as possible. Rigorous standards, such as ID requirements for voting, could lower the turnout of the state and so weaken that state's influence in national elections.

Right now, the voting standards of, say, Georgia have a limited effect on Wisconsin, and Wisconsinites have limited motivation to police the standards of Georgia and other states. Under National Popular Vote, the whole calculus of standards changes considerably; then, the standards of Georgia would have a more considerable effect on the lives of Wisconsin citizens. Should National Popular Vote pass, there would very likely become a growing chorus on behalf of a single standard for voting across the county, with an increasingly centralized and invasive bureaucracy to oversee the nation's voting.

That increased centralization might not be a problem if you support the US government becoming more like a parliamentary democracy, but it is more troublesome for those who believe in the United States being a federated republic. Moreover, there is considerable reason to believe that a single federal standard for voting would be less secure than many state standards. In the past few years, it is precisely the biggest administrative bodies that have failed in their duties: megabanks, ratings agencies, federal overseers, etc.

There is of course a role for federal involvement in voting standards. The Civil Rights Act, for example, was hugely important for ensuring that the Constitutional franchise was enjoyed by the citizens of many states. But there is also a reason for wanting to limit federal power, as well.

The National Popular Vote compact has been proposed and is advancing in many state legislatures; it has already been passed in six states and Washington, DC (see its website for more details). Some state legislators may hope that the success of this measure would bring more attention to their states and so increase their own power and influence, but NPV may represent a significant step down the road of undermining the power and independence of these legislatures and their members.

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