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“We Have To Do Better”: We Can’t Just Play Defense On Voting Access, It’s Time To Make Voting Easier

When I think of the 2012 Obama campaign, I am proud of so many things we accomplished. But one thing I wasn’t totally satisfied with was voter turnout.

It’s not that we didn’t meet our goals—we actually surpassed them, especially in key states. The numbers were stark: We won nine of the ten battleground states, registered 1.8 million new voters, and built a grassroots army of more than 2 million volunteers who made 146 million calls and door knocks over the course of the electoral cycle. Yet the really telling stats are the ones no one is discussing—specifically who failed to cast his or her vote in either this past election or any election in the last decade.

In 2012, 60 percent of eligible voters (129 million American citizens) headed to the polling booth, including the largest number of voters ever among African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans, and large numbers of women and young people—many of whom voted for the first time ever. But when 40 percent (86 million American citizen adults) are not voting, the simple fact is our society—and democracy writ large—suffers.

The fundamental problem is that the way we exercise our right to vote remains trapped in the 19th century. Some election officials still use unwieldy reams of paper to check off voters, voting machines vary from precinct to precinct and frequently break, and voters are driving to city hall or the public library to get their voter registration forms in many states.

What’s more, it’s costing Americans to participate in the process both in terms of the time and effort they must invest in order to register and vote—and in taxpayer dollars. In Oregon, where voter turnout is remarkably high in comparison with the rest of the nation, the state spends $4.11 to process each voter registration form. Meanwhile in Canada, the average cost is less than thirty-five cents.

At the same time, lines to cast a ballot have been getting longer and longer, especially in urban and minority communities. Analytical studies of the 2012 election show the problem extends far beyond the anecdotal evidence of Florida early voters waiting for hours to enter the polling booth. In fact, MIT scholar Charles Stewart III found that while two-thirds of American voters waited less than ten minutes to vote, voters in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of minorities often waited more than an hour. On average, African American voters across the country waited two times as long to vote as whites. Similarly, Hispanic voters waited a third longer than white voters.

The good news is the same innovative spirit and technological savvy that is making so many aspects of our lives easier—from travelling paper-free, to banking from home, to tracking on our smartphones how miles we’ve run or how many calories we’ve consumed—can also fix the problems with the way we vote. Digital technology and big data systems are continuing to change the world in which we live by helping us track massive amounts of data, protect against fraud, and democratize things that used to be the sole property of the elite and well-connected. It makes sense that those tools can help lead us to a more just and effective voting system as well.

The solutions already exist, and the policies are simply waiting to be adopted and enacted. In particular, by expanding online and automated voter registration, permitting no-excuse vote-by-mail, extending early voting, and implementing portable and Election Day registration, we can finally bring our voting system into the 21st century

If we do all these things we will not only improve democracy in America—we will save significant taxpayer dollars in the process.

One state leading the way on making voting both easier and more accessible is Colorado. In May, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a sweeping measure passed by both houses of the legislature that not only requires ballots be mailed to every single registered voter in Colorado but also permits registration through Election Day. Among the provisions included are a longer early voting period, a shorter time required for state residency to qualify to vote, and the ability to vote at any precinct within the voter’s county. What’s more, the law leaves it up to voters how they choose to cast their ballots during early vote or on Election Day—by mail, by dropping off the ballot, or in-person if that’s their preference.

We’re also seeing results in places like Washington State, which is a great case study on the benefits of expanding online and automated voter registration. Thanks to automated opt-in voter registration in the state’s Department of Licensing (DOL) offices, Washington saw cost savings amounting to $126,000 in 2008 alone, according to studies conducted by the Brennan Center. In addition, voters saved more than $90,000 in postage that would have been required to mail in their registration forms. It’s no wonder that Washington’s system has been popular with both the state and voters. In 2004, 15 percent of total registrations were completed at DOLs. By 2009, just a year after the state fully adopted and implemented online and automated registration, that number had jumped to 70 percent of total registrations.

While online and automated registration are key to easing the process for new voters, we know that increasing overall electoral participation can only happen if we improve the accessibility and convenience of voting, particularly for low-income and minority communities. That’s where policies that permit vote-by-mail and expand early voting come into play.

Oregon, Colorado, and Washington have already shown us what vote-by-mail can do for turnout. Oregon and Washington have instituted universal vote-by-mail, and both states have experienced voter participation rates that are significantly higher than the national average. Similarly, Colorado instituted the vote-by-mail option in 1992, and as awareness and education for this option increased, so has turnout. In 2012, Colorado had 70 percent turnout—and fully 82 percent of those voters cast their ballots before Election Day.

Instituting in-person early voting is another important piece that will help make it easier to vote, but this approach must go hand-in-hand with increasing early voting administrative resources and hours. In most states, early voting hours coincide with business hours and are shorter than Election Day hours. There are typically far fewer voting locations than on Election Day, and they are staffed with fewer poll workers and fewer machines. As a result, early voters have no choice but to travel greater distances to vote, and the expanded opportunity can be offset by the inconvenience.

One state that showcases how early voting can work well is Nevada. In 2008, 67 percent of Nevada voters voted early and 90 percent of Nevada early voters lived within 2.5 miles of an early vote site, further demonstrating the correlation between voting convenience and turnout. In 2012, Nevada offered two full weeks of early voting prior to Election Day with both permanent and mobile locations. Instead of the typical handful of staffers, mobile locations were run by teams of 10-12 election workers—and these locations changed sites every few days to ease the geographic burden on would-be voters. It’s not surprising then that in 2012, 69 percent of Nevadan voters cast their ballots prior to Election Day.

Finally, a crucial element of fixing our voting system is expanding portable and Election Day registration. Twenty-nine million voting age Americans move each year—that’s approximately one in eight people who would be eligible to vote—and 45 percent of voting age Americans move every five years. Yet most states require voters to re-register when they move to a new address. Portable voter registration would allow voters to keep their registration when they move.

Ten states currently allow voters to register and vote on Election Day: Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—and when California’s new law goes into effect it will bring the total to 11. There is no reason why that number should be less than 50.

Fortunately, organizations like Turbovote are working to make this process easier for voters: Their goal is to ensure voters only have to register once in their lifetime. But if we want to modernize our voting system to reflect both our values as a nation and our technological capabilities, we will need to build the political will to do it.

Last November, former Florida Republican Party chair Jim Greer came clean about efforts to suppress the Democratic vote in his home state by reducing early voting hours, saying, “the Republican Party, the strategists, the consultants, they firmly believe that early voting is bad for Republican Party candidates…It’s done for one reason and one reason only…We’ve got to cut down on early voting because early voting is not good for us.”

We heard similar things in Pennsylvania when State House Republican leader Mike Turzai touted passing a law with serious voting restrictions, including “voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

And it’s no coincidence that Texas Attorney General and presumed Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott put that state’s voter ID law into effect just hours after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act this past June. What’s clear is the Texas voter ID law is designed to make it easier for certain people to vote and harder for others—under this law, a concealed handgun license is considered acceptable identification for voting while a student ID issued by a Texas university is not. It’s no wonder U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has already announced plans by the Department of Justice to fight the Texas law and other efforts by states seeking to capitalize on the court’s decision.

In North Carolina, the state’s new Republican governor and Republican state legislature approved a sweeping law last month to reduce early voting, eliminate voter registration during early voting, require voters to obtain photo ID, and impose a tax on parents of students who choose to vote on campus. Like Texas, the North Carolina law further discriminates against students by prohibiting them from using their North Carolina student ID to vote.

What these extreme comments and actions indicate is that we need a “common sense caucus” on voting rights. There are moderate Republicans who believe that elections should be about who has the best ideas—not who can change the laws to make it more difficult for their opponents to vote. We need to lift up those voices.

The ideas outlined above are just common sense solutions—and lawmakers in Washington should be taking action to implement them. Ultimately, driving up voter participation and making it easier to vote will help not only urban voters but provide greater access to the political process for voters in rural communities as well. That’s a goal leaders from both sides of the aisle should be able to support.

But we can’t wait for Washington.

States need to begin passing laws that reform and modernize our voting system—and begin seeing results the likes of those in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada. In fact this kind of a decentralized approach—using the states as “laboratories of democracy”—may be the only way to solve the problem

In Silicon Valley, former Obama staffer Jim Green recently started a venture called Technology for America (T4A). This group brings together the best and brightest of Silicon Valley together with mayors and other elected officials of either party who want to solve the big problems of our day. Every Secretary of State in this country should be banging down Jim’s door asking how they can partner with Silicon Valley to come up with smart technology solutions to create a better voting system. If they don’t care or have the audacity to lead on this, we should fire them and vote in better Secretaries of State who do.

In the last election, 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, and many of those who did waited in unacceptably long lines to do so. As President Obama said in his acceptance speech on election night, “we have to fix that.”

The facts are clear on this front—we have the technology and the brilliant technologists to help us do just that. The question is whether or not national and state lawmakers have the political will. If not, we need to start electing political leaders who care about our democracy and understand that participation in it is critical to our success.

We made history in 2012—and in 2008—and I was deeply honored to be part of both amazing, transcendent campaigns. But history isn’t enough. We have to do better.


By: Jeremy Bird, the New Republic, November 30, 2013

December 2, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Much Less Safe Neighborhood”: The NRA And The “Wave Of Fear” Prevails In Colorado

In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, several states took action in the hopes of preventing future gun violence. States like Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut each passed meaningful measures over the objections of far-right activists and the National Rifle Association.

So too did Colorado, where memories of the massacre at an Aurora movie theater were still fresh when the violence in Newtown occurred. Though the state has traditionally been resistant to gun reforms, lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) approved new measures in March to expand background checks and restrict high-capacity magazines — policies that even conservative Supreme Court justices have said are constitutional.

But the NRA and the right decided these efforts to reduce gun violence cannot stand, and they launched the first-ever recall elections in Colorado history. Yesterday, their gambit worked.

Two Colorado legislators who supported stricter gun control laws lost their jobs on Tuesday in an unprecedented recall election that became the center of the national debate over regulating firearms.

Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were both defeated, the Denver Post reported, in the recall effort.

They’ll both be replaced with Republicans allied with the NRA, but this will not affect partisan control of Colorado’s state Senate, where Democrats will maintain a narrow majority.

Morse, a former police chief, was slated to leave office next year anyway, making his recall election more symbolic. Giron, first elected three years ago, has vowed to continue to find ways to serve her community.

Morse said last night, “We made Colorado safer from gun violence. If it cost me my political career, that’s a small price to pay.”

Let’s pause for a moment to ponder how remarkable it is that a respected lawmaker’s career had to end because he approved legal measures intended to prevent gun deaths.

The NRA, it’s worth noting, originally sought five recall elections against Democrats, but in the other three cases, the right-wing group failed to gather sufficient petition signatures.

But what, ultimately, was the point? If control of the state Senate was not at stake, Morse was retiring next year anyway, and the gun reforms aren’t going to be repealed anytime soon, why bother with multi-million-dollar recall elections with no precedent in state history?

The answer, of course, was that the NRA and far-right activists want to send a message to policymakers everywhere: efforts to prevent gun violence will end your career, too. Watch on YouTube

Indeed, the right has been quite explicit on this point. My colleague Laura Conaway posted this item a few weeks ago, featuring remarks from a local recall proponent.

For those who can’t watch clips online, the man in the video, Jon Caldara of the Colorado Independence Institute, argued:

“If the president of the Senate of Colorado, who did nothing except pass the laws that Bloomberg wrote, gets knocked out, there will be a shudder, a wave of fear that runs across every state legislator across the country, that says, ‘I ain’t doing that ever. That is not happening to me. I will not become a national embarrassment, I will not take on those guys.’ That’s how big this is.”

The goal of the NRA and its allies, then, was to create “a wave of fear.” Yesterday, they convinced just enough Coloradans who found this message appealing.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, September 11, 2013

September 12, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence, National Rifle Association | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Three Minute Woman”: Jan Brewer Struggles To Draw A Crowd

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer hosted a meeting of the Western Governors Association over the weekend, where she was scheduled to deliver a speech on energy policy. Beforehand, the governor chatted with local TV station KTVK, which asked whether Brewer believes in climate change.

“Everybody has an opinion on it, you know, and I, you know, I probably don’t believe that it’s man made,” she said. “I believe that, you know, that weather elements are controlled maybe by different things.”

Once the interview was over, Brewer asked the local reporter, “Where in the hell did that come from?”

Of course. Because nothing’s more outlandish than asking a governor about climate change before a speech on energy policy.

And how did the speech go? Not well.

Although she was introduced as a political rock star Saturday, Gov. Jan Brewer wasn’t a very big draw.

The Western Governors’ Association held its annual winter meeting in Paradise Valley. But of the 19 governors in the group, only two showed up to see Brewer deliver a brief keynote speech. […]

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) were the two governors who attended the meeting. They are the current vice chairman and chairman of the organization.

Brewer spoke for a grand total of three minutes before leaving the stage.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 3, 2012

December 3, 2012 Posted by | Politics | , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Epic Obstruction And Dishonesty”: Colorado Republican Leadership Kills Civil Unions And 30 Other Bills

Civil unions are dead for this year in Colorado and Republican obstruction is to blame after an unprecedented night of antics on the House floor. The civil unions bill passed out of its final committee yesterday evening and needed to reach a floor vote by midnight. Republicans instead chose to intentionally run out the clock with hour-long debates on noncontroversial legislation about historic license plates and trans-fats in school lunchrooms, with Rep. David Balmer (R) filibustering, “Not a one of you has the courage to vote against chocolate!”

Rep. B.J. Nikkel (R), one of several Republicans who supported civil unions in committee, offered to help Democrats regain control to force a vote. The presiding officer declared a recess as an attempted coup ensued. In this exclusive behind-the-scenes clip from OutFront Colorado, it’s obvious that House Speaker Frank McNulty (R) is seen holding the civil unions bill hostage, refusing to guarantee that he would bring it up to a vote. In fact, he dishonestly rejected the notion that any sort of stalling tactic was underway. Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Waller (R) attempted to play damage control on the floor, evoking uproarious laughter from the press when he claimed, “The Democrats in the State House right now are playing procedural games to have one bill heard over every other bill.”

Ultimately, the House never came out of recess. Not only did the civil unions bill die, but so did 30 other pieces of legislation, including $20 million worth of water projects statewide and a controversial bill that would set a standard for driving while stoned. Upon news the bills were dying, people in the gallery started booing and chanting, “Shame on you! Shame on you!” Watch how McNulty tried to blame the failure on an “impasse,” disingenuously suggesting “it is unfortunate that there will be items that do not receive consideration by the House tonight”:

But of course, McNulty is fully responsible for that impasse. He tried to pass the buck by blaming Senate Democrats for delaying introduction of the bill, but left out one important detail. Sen. Pat Steadman (D), the bill’s sponsor, explained that he brought the bill up late specifically because the speaker pro tem, Rep. Kevin Priola (R), was considering sponsoring the bill but wanted to wait until after the GOP state convention in mid-April. Priola supports the bill, but never bothered to sign on as the House sponsor, despite the delay at his request.

The Denver Post has called on Gov. John Hickenlooper to call a special session of the legislature so that civil unions can pass. Unfortunately, even in a special session, McNulty could reshuffle committee membership to prevent the bill from advancing to the floor.

There is no way to spin the absurd obstruction that took place last night. Despite ample support for civil unions from Republicans, it was the Republican House leadership that sacrificed 30 other bills to prevent same-sex couples from obtaining legal rights. It’s an historically sad day for Colorado politics.


By: Zack Ford, Think Progress, May 9, 2012

May 10, 2012 Posted by | Civil Rights | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


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