I was just reminded that we need to make it easier to vote, but I'm not holding my breath waiting for progress.
Six days before the recent election, I realized I would be out of town on business. That meant I was too late for a conventional absentee ballot and would require an emergency application. I downloaded the document, had it notarized, and walked it into the Board of Elections, adjacent to the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown. There I was handed a paper ballot. The staff was sufficiently cordial and competent, but the process was archaic. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I wondered how many others would have surrendered the 90 minutes this took me in travel and processing time.
After all, at stake was not the presidency, but a slew of judicial retentions, school boards, supervisors, and commissioners. Truth be told, if I did not have a 33-year consecutive voting streak in progress, I would have sat it out. I would have had lots of company. Of 541,451 registered voters in Montgomery County, only 132,316 cast ballots. That translates to just 24.44 percent, according to the unofficial returns posted on the county website. Keep in mind that's a quarter of those registered, not a quarter of the whole population.
Clearly we need to boost participation. And yet, around the country, most election changes are headed in the wrong direction, and at an escalating pace.
That's the net effect of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court ruled in June that nine states (and several other counties and municipalities) that had been required under the Voting Rights Act to obtain preclearance before adopting new laws concerning elections would no longer be so obligated. Freed of Justice Department oversight, many states are enacting laws that would not have been permitted before the decision. North Carolina is a great example. The Tar Heel State has enacted a law that cuts back early voting, imposes strict voter-ID rules, eliminates some same-day registration, and expands opportunities to challenge voters at the polls.
Since Chief Justice John Roberts objected to the use of 40-year-old data in the majority Shelby opinion, you might think Congress would fix the problem. After all, the Voting Rights Act has historically engendered bipartisan support. It was initially passed in 1965, and extended in 1970, 1975, 1982, and 2006. In that last reauthorization, the vote was 390-33 in the House and unanimous in the Senate. President George W. Bush signed it into law. The only bills that get that kind of bipartisan support in Washington today are post-office renamings. Still, Congress won't act to address the concerns raised in Shelby.
In public, no elected official would want to be seen opposing the Voting Rights Act. That's a heresy akin to voting against apple pie, baseball, and F-150 trucks. But behind the scenes, where legislation can be strangled in its infancy, things are different. There the issue isn't upholding the right to vote - it's part of a cold election calculus.
Pew research recently pointed out that Mitt Romney won the same percentage (59) of the white vote in 2012 as George H.W. Bush received in 1988. For Bush, it meant victory - a popular-vote margin of seven million and an Electoral College total of 426-111; for Romney, it amounted to defeat - a loss by five million votes and an Electoral College shellacking of 206-332.
No doubt Roberts was right in noting that things have changed since 1965, but not always for the better. It's laudable that Mississippi has seen its African American registration grow from 6.4 percent to 76 percent during the life of the Voting Rights Act. Yet when a state like Pennsylvania - never covered by the act - seeks to impose a voter-ID system without a corresponding showing of voter fraud, we still need to safeguard protections, and not just in the South. I suspect what drives "ballot security" initiatives are changing demographics.
There would have been no need for me to travel to my county courthouse to cast an emergency ballot if my state didn't limit voting to a single day. That Pennsylvania has not enabled early voting beyond absentee ballots (for cause) is telling. (And how ridiculous that the emergency application carried a "WARNING" that if my plans changed and I was in town, I was to make a trip to my polling place and void my absentee ballot.)
Let's make it easier to vote. If that necessitates the trade-off of requiring voter ID, fine, so long as it's one people can readily possess. Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is among those who have suggested using a Social Security card. He's right. And we should phase in a process by which people have their picture put on those cards. (I'm anxious to see who opposes that idea and on what grounds.)
Of course, the bigger question isn't the form of ID. It's whether some among us really want to increase participation. And sadly, the answer is no.