The Problem with Elections

At the “Renewing Our Democracy” forum, panelists suggest ways to increase voter power
Simon Rosenberg, A85, with panelist Leslie Ogden, A12
“Thomas Jefferson said, in essence, that every generation must reinvent the revolution to create a government for their times,” said Simon Rosenberg, A85, here with panelist Leslie Ogden, A12. Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 10, 2012

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Unfair and outdated election laws are at the core of many problems with American democracy today, four panelists told a Tufts audience at a forum last week titled “Renewing Our Democracy.”

In particular, problems with the Electoral College, requirements for photo identification at voting polls and restrictive windows for voter registration came under fire from the panel. All these, they said, exclude many citizens from the electoral process and disenfranchise them from our democracy.

“Imagine not being able to register to vote the month before an election [as national law now prescribes], when everyone is attuned to the issues and energized,” said Simon Rosenberg, A85, president of the New Democrat Network/New Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that cosponsored the forum. “This diminishes the number of people participating in our democracy.”

Further limiting voters’ numbers is the requirement that state-issued photo IDs be shown at the polls, even if voters are registered, said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts’ Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, another forum cosponsor.

“Why do we need photo IDs when there is no evidence people are breaking the laws?” Levine asked. “It may explain why we have the lowest voter turnout of any Western democracy.”

He added that the photo-ID restriction lowers voter turnout in places like Milwaukee, where 78 percent of African-American men do not have a driver’s license, and also makes it harder for out-of-state college students to vote. Currently, 30 states have laws that will require all voters to show official identification at the polls this November, he said.

Another speaker, Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, noted that voting rights legislation her organization has proposed to encourage more citizens to vote is being debated at the State House.

“This bill would allow 16-year-olds to preregister to vote, allow people to download voter registration forms instead of having to request them by mail and require regular audits of electronic voting machines,” Wilmot said.

Taking on the Electoral College

Wilmot’s larger goal is reforming, not eliminating, the Electoral College system used in presidential elections. Currently, the winner of each state’s presidential election garners all its Electoral College votes, and candidates who win the popular vote in national elections can—and have—lost presidential elections. In fact, four presidential candidates had this happen: Andrew Jackson in 1824; Samuel Tilden in 1876; Grover Cleveland in 1888; and Al Gore in 2000.

“It’s long past time that all Americans elect the most important office in the land,” said Wilmot. She noted that in the 2008 presidential campaign, 54 percent of the ads and 57 percent of the candidates’ campaign visits took place in just four states, and 98 percent of ads and visits in just 15 states, including New York, California, Ohio, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania, all because of the focus on winning high Electoral College vote states. Under the existing system, “the rest [of the voting public] are just spectators,” she said.

Wilmot urged students to monitor the National Popular Vote effort, which would guarantee the popular vote—and not the electoral vote—would decide presidential elections. It would change, but not eliminate, the Electoral College, by having all states agree to dedicate their electors to the national popular vote winner. It has been enacted by nine states that represent 132 electoral votes, or 49 percent of the 270 required to elect a president.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the states are empowered to allocate their electoral votes, and may change their state laws concerning the awarding of their electoral votes at any time. Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Another panelist, Tufts undergraduate Leslie Ogden, A12, conducted research as an intern for the New Democrat Network that found that half of America’s population lives in just nine states, giving them outsized political clout in the current Electoral College system.

Panelist Jim Glaser, dean of academic affairs and professor of political science in the School of Arts and Sciences, said the takeaway from the forum is that the rules of the game, such as election laws, do indeed affect the outcome.

Becoming educated about the American political system, from voting rights to a gridlocked Congress to the ability of Super PACs to anonymously fund causes and candidates, should be the younger generation’s call to action, Rosenberg said.

“Thomas Jefferson said, in essence, that every generation must reinvent the revolution to create a government for their times,” he said. “It will be up to all of us to reinvent our democracy to be all it can be.”

Gail Bambrick can be reached at gail.bambrick@tufts.edu.