Reformers Reforming Reforms

A similarly-alliterated follow-up to my post on overseas voting: I was struck as I wrote it by the fact that the things reformers complain about today are the things reformers instituted a century ago. Nearly all the “problems” in today’s elections are the product of innovations in the early 1900s. While some of them definitely need to be fixed (again), the bigger conversation needs to be about what is the highest good when it comes to elections–because priorities have clearly changed in 100 years.

Is it voter turnout? (Should we try harder to enfranchise the ignorant, the apathetic, and the incompetent?) Is it accuracy? (Should we try harder to reduce mistakes?) Is it legitimacy? (Should we try harder to ensure that a cynical generation has a positive view of the process through which it chose its leaders?)

Tough questions that aren’t really being discussed when we complain about problems voting. A little historical context is in order.

The MOVE Act comes as the latest in a seemingly irreversible wave of efforts to make voting easier. Politicians, research institutions, and election reform organizations come out with statements and proposals calling loudly for reform. The last 10 years—to some extent the last 20—have seen a number of efforts to “modernize” voting (trade speak for making it easier).

But identifying what is really a problem is easier said than done. Many election reform organizations have institutional memories going back no further than the 1990s (the Brennan Center for Justice comes to mind; great research, very short time slots covered). Citing recent statistics of low voter turnout and of problems voting, activists and politicians claim a clear need to abandon existing procedures that make it hard to vote. Yet those very procedures were put in place a century ago by Progressive reformers because of rampant voter fraud, intimidation, and election-buying. (Anyone who has seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington has seen a glimpse of what American politics looked like before election reform.)

Put another way, the American federal voting system has been structured and restructured over the years to foster an environment of legitimacy and accuracy. The same systems that occasionally make it hard for an unprepared voter to cast a ballot also protect that voter from having his vote stolen. And well-intentioned reformers, willing to tear down a fence before they even know why it was put there, risk undoing good things along with bad.

An example: many voters complain about the inconvenient hours of polling places. Yet fixed, daytime hours were mandated during the Progressive era after numerous ballot stuffing scandals delegitimized election results (along with ballot-marking parties in which employees or union members were forced to mark their ballots the “right” way). Such issues are not a relic of a bygone time—Afghanistan, which took great pains to make its voting “safe and accessible,” had serious problems along these lines in its 2009 election. While polling place hours are not an unfixable problem, reform-minded lawmakers would need to think very carefully about how to fix it so as to avoid recreating problems the country has already (mostly) solved.

So as states deal with sweeping federal legislation demanding they make it easier to vote, historical experience challenges them to do it carefully—without unwittingly destroying the safeguards that have allowed American elections to end with cordial concession phone calls instead of revolutions.

This isn’t, of course, to say reform is impossible or unnecessary. Not at all. But it seems our priorities today are very different from the priorities of reformers 100 years ago. While this is unsurprising given our different historical context, it does leave us with a tricky question: when our young people don’t vote because they don’t trust the process, just how much of “the process” do we dismantle in our quest to cater to them? What is the highest good? When we are dealing with institutions that were meant to survive different generations’ unique issues, how much do we risk making things harder for our kids in our quest to make it easier for us?

Comments are closed.