A Better Way to Cast a Ballot

Published August 13, 2012

The Wall Street Journal

One person, one vote. All sorts of Americans will tell you that this lapidary formula is how democracy works. If only it were so simple.

Who qualifies as a “person” and what constitutes a “vote”? Each state answers the question differently. In some states former felons qualify; in others they don’t. Some voting machines are harder to use or more prone to error. Absentee ballots may be delayed in the mail and arrive too late to be counted, or they may arrive in time only to be mislaid by incompetent or malicious officials.

Pundits and policy experts agree that our vote-counting system is flawed, even badly flawed, but they disagree about how to fix it. The division is neatly captured in two books: Who’s Counting? by John Fund and Hans von Spakovsky and The Voting Wars by Richard Hasen.

Mr. Fund, a veteran political journalist and a former member of The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial-page staff, and Mr. von Spakovsky, a Heritage Foundation fellow who was a lawyer in the voting-rights division of the George W. Bush administration, argue that the big problem is fraud. Our system, they say, makes it relatively easy to steal elections. With little fear of detection, fraudsters can register illegal immigrants or phony names and use absentee ballots. Or send imposters to vote in person for deceased citizens still on the rolls—most states don’t require a voter to show poll workers a photo ID.

The potential for mayhem doesn’t stop on Election Day. During recounts, votes that weren’t counted originally can later be “found” by election officials, as happened in King County (Seattle) in the infamous 2004 Washington-state gubernatorial recount. Or absentee ballots that were rejected on Election Day because the voters’ signatures on ballot sleeves didn’t match the ones on registration cards can be re-examined and accepted, as occurred in the 2008 Minnesota senatorial recount. Judging whether a vote is valid is a subjective process—and the people making the judgments are often partisans who know full well which candidate will benefit from their decision.

Messrs. Fund and von Spakovsky argue forcefully that only enhanced voter security systems can clean up American elections. The authors would require voters to show a photo ID when voting, whether in person or by an absentee ballot (which would be accompanied by a copy of the ID, as is now required in Kansas). Voter-registration forms collected by third parties, such as the forms phonied up by the community organizers at Acorn in 2008, could be required to include the name and address of the collector. The book recommends that local election boards, to prevent majority steamrolling, include an equal number of representatives from both major parties and at least one nonpartisan or third-party member.

In Voting Wars, Mr. Hasen, a law-school professor, takes a very different approach. He argues that critics like Messrs. Fund and von Spakovsky are part of the “Fraudulent Fraud Squad,” GOP partisans who exaggerate the likelihood of voting fraud with the intent of changing election rules and reducing the participation of Democratic-leaning voters. He notes how hard it would be to commit impersonation fraud on a mass scale. (He is silent on absentee-ballot fraud, many examples of which are provided in Who’s Counting?) He opposes voter-ID laws “not because they will have a large effect” on turnout, he says—noting that they “most likely won’t”—but because “such laws are unnecessary to prevent voter fraud, and in a razor-thin election, we cannot dismiss the partisan ramifications of disenfranchising even a small number of votes.” The disenfranchised voters will be, in his view, mostly minorities and the poor. Mr. Hasen seems untroubled by the partisan ramifications of a razor-thin election turning on a small number of votes cast illegally.

For Mr. Hasen, the main problem with our voting system is the partisan way in which it is run. Here he stands on stronger ground. American elections are ultimately administered by officials who, in a crunch, rarely make decisions that hurt their own party. Elections are also run largely by individual counties where the professionalism of officials can vary widely and where precinct-level voting is often supervised by senior-citizen volunteers.

Mr. Hasen’s solution is to make the national government responsible for enrolling every eligible American. Voters would be given an ID card that they would show before voting. Mr. Hasen’s voter IDs, unlike those proposed by Messrs. Fund and von Spakovsky, would be given free of charge upon every citizen’s turning 18. They would also include an individual voter identification number, allowing people to be tracked and re-enrolled as they move. Mr. Hasen also calls for nonpartisan, professional election commissions similar to those in Australia and Canada, removing political parties from the ballot process entirely. He suggests other reforms in the same vein, requiring uniform national rules for voting machines and absentee ballots and much else.

He concedes that his proposals have little chance of being adopted, given the partisan nature of our “voting wars.” The bigger obstacle, though, would be imposing the workings of a national election agency on a country with America’s diverse political culture. No other country votes on as many matters, on any given Election Day, as the United States. And almost every other country in the world relies on paper ballots—no complex voting machines with hanging chads, poorly scanned ballots or easy-to-hack software.

The average American won’t worry about these matters until another ugly recount happens, reminding everyone of Florida in 2000. Rather than wait, we might try to adopt some of the reforms from both Who’s Counting? and The Voting Wars. But let’s not take a vote on it.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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