From the standpoint of voter access and effective administration, the 2010 elections were in many ways a mixed bag. There were a number of troubling incidents that occurred including voter intimidation and threats of vote suppression, and the structural barriers to voting that keep participation rates down were as apparent as ever. Yet at the same time it was clear that much of the worst that might have happened was avoided. While the lower turnout in mid-term elections clearly presents less of a challenge to election administration, we also may be seeing the fruits of close scrutiny of election processes in past years. Voting advocates, election administrators, law enforcement, federal agencies and voters themselves seem to be getting better at dealing with problems in advance of Election Day and in responding to them more swiftly and effectively on Election Day itself. Yet make no mistake: we still have a long way to go when it comes to improving our electoral system.
One theme permeating the election that unfortunately interfered in our having a smoother and more successful voting process is one that presents a greater ongoing challenge to all Americans: the politics of anger and the mistrust of government and all institutions, and the increasingly uncivil discourse that permeates any political discussion these days. Our pre-election report on ten Swing States flagged this as an issue to watch. As is described below, these sentiments led to activities among some groups and individuals in the lead-up to the election and at the polls that were very damaging to the electoral process.
Below are the major themes to emerge in the 2010 vote, including the continuing baseless allegations of vote fraud; the unfortunate emergence of the Tea Party groups inserting themselves into the voting process in counterproductive ways, often at the urging of voter fraud mythologists; the role of anti-immigrant sentiment; voter registration barriers; confusion over provisional ballots; the continuation of deceptive practices meant to confuse voters about the system; progress for military and overseas voters; and major strides forward by election administrators and the Department of Justice in being proactive in responding to allegations of vote fraud and monitoring voter intimidation.
Baseless Fraud Claims Spawn Real Voter Intimidation
Every election year, politicians and citizen activists stridently charge that voter fraud is permeating the system. It went as mainstream as Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain himself in 2008. This year it was tea partiers at their meetings and in the blogosphere, egged on by senior Republican officials. Former House Majority Leader turned tea party leader Dick Armey told Fox News more Democrats were voting early because that's when its easier to cheat more. David Norcross, the Chair of the Republican National Lawyers Association called vote fraud "an epidemic". Fox News played its role, with its anchors constantly trumpeting reports of "voter fraud on a massive scale with the intention of keeping Democrats in office."
It was fitting that President Obama chose the eve of the 4th of July weekend to make his latest plea for comprehensive immigration reform. It was an implicit recognition that as we celebrate our great democracy, our journey is not finished. As long as we continue to have millions of people living as our neighbors in our communities without any true prospect for inclusion in our democracy through a path to citizenship, our democracy is still incomplete.
Lost in all the political spin around the elections this week is the issue of, once again, abominable turnout. The conventional wisdom is that this is always the case for an “off year” election, as though that were in itself some legitimate justification or reason not to care. The importance of our democracy tells us it is not. The situation in Virginia was particularly disheartening. But Virginia’s new governor, Robert McDonnell, can take a step towards doing something about that.
In Virginia, the numbers were even worse this year than they were in the 2005 off year election. In fact, falling below 40% of the electorate, the turnout in Virginia was the worst it has been in 40 years. Though pundits and politicians can attribute it to Democratic Creigh Deeds’ lackluster campaign, the large lead the Republican candidate had in the polls by the end of the campaign, or disappointment with events in Washington, the decline in young and minority voters was especially disappointing.
Recently, The New York Times published a story about the long delays in selecting and confirming appointees to the top 500 jobs in the Obama administration. As of the end of August, only 43% of those positions had been filled. This statistic reflects a larger reality that has been a problem for several decades as sharper partisanship and other factors have made the whole process more difficult and the results less satisfactory.
A decade ago at The Century Foundation, we undertook studies designed to reach conclusions that might help streamline the process for both parties. We commissioned papers by Professor G. Calvin Mackenzie and journalist Robert Shogan on how the process worked and what seemed to be the major problems. In addition, the following year G. Calvin Mackenzie, The Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of Government at Colby College, wrote The Presidential Appointment Process in 1997, on our behalf laying out the nature of the problem and offering even more far reaching solutions.
Much has been made of the fact that there was no catastrophic meltdown
in the election system this year. The fact that problems were not as
pervasive as they might have been is due to the hard work of the voting
rights community and election administrators in the months and even
years before the election and the enthusiasm and persistence of
voters. At the same time, thousands and thousands of voters faced
unacceptable barriers to voting this year, demonstrating that much more
work remains to be done.
A few years ago, term limits were all the rage as populists across the nation attacked governments and the people they had elected to run them. New York City was swept along with the tide, with the public twice supporting the restriction of city officeholders, including the mayor, to two terms.
Now, a popular billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, seems bent on sweeping aside the restrictions through City Council action, and seeking a third term. But the question of whether term limits are a good idea deserves debate, regardless of how one feels about this particular political flap in New York City.
(This post was co-written by Tova Andrea Wang, TCF Democracy Fellow and vice president of research at Common Cause).
In an election cycle that witnessed an increase in young voter turnout across the country during the primaries, Rock the Vote (RTV) predicts that young voters will turn out in such high numbers in four states in November that their votes will impact the outcome of those states’ elections. The four states RTV predicts will feel the greatest impact of young voters are Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado and Ohio. As a forthcoming report by Common Cause and The Century Foundation, details, of the many young voters out there, a significant number of them are also student voters, who too often must confront unique obstacles to voting. Given the key role students will play this year – and the possible backlash by some partisans to prevent them from doing so – such problems could influence how large of an impact they will be able to have in these states and throughout the country.
More than 6.5 million Americans under the age of 30 voted in the 2008 presidential primaries. Time Magazine and other prominent publications dubbed 2008 "The Year of the Youth Vote." Political commentators and analysts have argued that the surge in the youth vote and its virtually unwavering support for Barack Obama was a key factor behind the Senator's ascent to prominence and his ultimate victory in securing his spot as the Democratic nominee for president. However, it remains unclear as to whether or not the youth voting bloc will be as powerful during the general election.
In the midst of this microscopically scrutinized primary campaign, there have been lots of stories about the impact “independent voters” have had on contests in states that have “open primaries,” in which unaffiliated voters (and sometimes members of another party) are allowed to cast a ballot. Barack Obama is said to have won more of the independent vote; John McCain was said to have been helped in some states that had “open primaries” because of his appeal to independents, and hurt in others because of voters’ enthusiasm for Obama. And there were complaints about “cross over” voting in the Ohio Democratic primary , with some accusing Republicans of surreptitiously infiltrating the Democratic primaries. (A majority of states have closed primaries, but a great many are open and others fall somewhere in between.)
But what does the issue of “open” vs. “closed” primaries mean for voting rights and access?