The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity — a body set up by President Donald Trump to investigate “the registration and voting processes used in Federal elections,” including vulnerabilities that could lead to voter fraud — is widely seen as perpetuating the myth of mass fraud in the 2016 election in order to facilitate voter intimidation and suppression, including selectively purging voter rolls.
Of the fifty states to receive a request for voter roll data from Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach in his role as vice chair of the commission, 44 (and the District of Columbia) have already either totally or partly refused to comply. Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann went as far as to declare, “They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi is a great state to launch from,” and in his position as Secretary of State of Kansas, Kobach was legally bound to refuse his own request to himself.
But our nation needs more than a vociferous rejection of Kobach’s efforts. We need to put civics before partisanship and promote proactive policies to ensure accessibility and ease of voting, and the stakes for doing so are higher than ever.
Ensuring voter accessibility is not just about protecting our most fundamental democratic right, but is now also a national security issue. According to recent reports, Russian hacking efforts during the 2016 election included attempts to infiltrate and alter state voter rolls. While there is no evidence that vote tallies were tampered with, removing individuals from voter rolls in a calculated manner could have the same effect; preventing citizens from voting is just as bad as deleting the votes they cast.
An effective remedy against attacks against our voter rolls – and by extension, our democracy – will take more than just better cyber defenses. We must render such attacks worthless by making voting easier, so that hostile efforts to purge or alter voter rolls before election day fail to limit ballots cast. Fortunately, there are many simple policies with successful precedent that can do just that.
Perhaps the most important means of enhancing accessibility and blunting election interference would be to expand same-day registration. Under this system, already employed in over a dozen states, voters who are not on rolls can register at the polls on Election Day itself. The effect of same-day registration is notable: The average turnout in states with same-day registration is over 10 points higher. Same-day registration does not increase the risk of voter fraud – in fact it provides added security. It requires attesting to one’s identity and eligibility to vote directly before an elections official, with audits and penalties as an extra defense.
Instituting same-day registration across the country would effectively end the threat of foreign powers interfering in elections by selectively purging voters rolls ahead of an election: If an individual were improperly removed from rolls, they could simply re-register when they voted. Same-day registration has been steadily increasing, with the exception of North Carolina, whose Republican legislature repealed its same-day registration system in 2013 (although this effort was overturned by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals), just as it was selectively rolling back early voting.
A second means of improving voter accessibility would be to expand early in-person voting, a system already in place in much of the U.S. 34 states provide some level of in-person early voting. And while further evidence is needed, research does suggest that early voting improves turnout. However, efforts have begun to selectively cut early voting. In 2016, Republican-appointed election officials in North Carolina cut early voting in a manner that appeared designed to limit black turnout, something the state Republican party later boasted about succeeding in. Rather than winding back early in-person voting, especially in the partisan manner that North Carolina did, states with early voting should maintain or expand it. Meanwhile, the 16 states that have refrained from early voting – including populous states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan – should adopt the system if they wish to do all they can to defend the very core of our democracy. Such a measure will ease lines on Election Day and give individuals more time to address any problems, such as being improperly purged from voter rolls.
States should also enhance voter accessibility by following the leads of Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and instituting a mail-in voting system. In these states, every registered voter receives a ballot weeks in advance, which can then be cast by return mail. Voters also have the option of voting in person on Election Day. Despite accusations that mail-in voting creates an insecure system, voter fraud in states with this system is extremely rare, with just 13 cases of fraud in Oregon since 2000. This measure would not only be more convenient, but would also undercut any efforts by foreign powers to maliciously purge voter rolls. Any voters improperly removed would have time to remedy the situation, because they would be tipped off when they failed to receive a mail ballot.
Finally, the government could create an Election Day holiday or move Election Day to a more convenient date. Congress established a national election day for federal elections as a Tuesday in 1845, a time when the U.S. was an agrarian society with a much smaller and less concentrated population. But today this creates significant obstacles, especially limited time during the workday and lines at polling places. Making Election Day a national holiday would address that and highlight the civic importance of participation. Rep. John Conyers has proposed such a measure. However, creating a new holiday could raise fiscal objections, reducing economic production and requiring paid leave.
An alternative would be to simply move Election Day. The Weekend Voting Act, a bill introduced this year and in several previous congressional sessions, would make Election Day a full weekend in early November. This would remedy the difficulties of a weekday election, and further ease participation by doubling the available time of Election Day voting. Weekend elections are already employed in nations such as Brazil and Australia, with much higher turnout than the United States. But while the bill has 76 co-sponsors, not a single Republican has signed on, demonstrating how partisan even the most uncontroversial voter accessibility measures are. Making Election Day a holiday or placing it on a weekend would not guarantee that voters could overcome malicious efforts to alter voter rolls, but would at least doing so easier. Rather than needing to find time during a crammed workday to go to a court or election board to respond to improper removal from voter rolls, an individual would have the entire day, or even a full weekend to remedy the situation.
Voter accessibility should be a basic democratic value, but far too often we’ve seen a recurring pattern of partisanship stall efforts to making voting easier. In a world where foreign cyberattacks on our elections have emerged as a serious threat, voter access must now be treated as a national security issue. Hopefully the near-universal rejection of Kobach’s Election Commission can be a bipartisan rallying point not just to reject offensive suppression efforts, but to start proactive policies to improve voter accessibility. It’s time that all politicians and elected officials cast aside partisan instincts and put country first: Improve voter accessibility to protect our elections and national security.
Image: Drew Angerer/Getty