After a heated election year that heightened partisan tensions and stoked ideological fires, the wounds of political divisiveness are still quite raw. So, on Jan. 6, when Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) joined the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit), in formally challenging the 2004 electoral vote, many accused the Democrats of being sore losers. Their true purpose, as it turned out, was not to dispute the election; they merely wished to draw public attention to a lengthy list of election irregularities. Hopefully, their protest will spur much-needed federal electoral reform.
Across the country, voters in poor and minority districts faced disproportionately long lines at polling sites. In the poorer, urban precincts of Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, some voters had to wait in line for 10 hours before they could cast their votes. Many of these sites, which were under-staffed and under-equipped, ran out of ballots before the polls closed — protracting the waiting period further. Undoubtedly, the absurdly long lines in many low-income, urban districts deterred prospective voters and contributed to the disenfranchisement of poorer citizens.
Furthermore, as reported by Newsday, many Ohio polling sites, especially those in poorer areas, continued to use the same unreliable punch-card machines that caused trouble in 2000. At an Ohio polling location where paperless electronic voting machines were used, 3,893 extra votes were recorded for Bush. This mistake came to light only when election officials realized the precinct only had 638 registered voters.
Election Protection, a nonpartisan organization that monitored the election, reported hundreds of incidents in which voters in minority districts were systematically harassed by “election observers” at polling sites. According to EP, the election observers, paid political operatives with little legal training, were strategically placed to help suppress the minority vote.
Flagrantly partisan election officials acted to exacerbate the problem. Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell (R), to name just one, made the arbitrary decision that all voter registration cards must be printed on 80-pound stock paper. As a result, hundreds of otherwise-valid registration forms were rejected.
While certain members of Congress have argued that imperfections in the democratic process are inevitable, to sit passively would be simply irresponsible. Congress needs to federalize the voting process, while simultaneously removing it from partisan spheres of influence to ensure that no vote goes uncounted. The process would be easier than one might think — the government already keeps track of each of its citizens with a social security number. A streamlined, centralized process monitored by a nonpartisan commission would put and end to abuses at the local and state level.
Voter disenfranchisement is not a class problem, a race problem or even a democratic problem — it’s an American problem. Electoral reform must be addressed if this nation is to legitimately embody the same democratic processes we read about in our American history books and promote abroad. When Boxer and Conyers demanded to have a true debate about voter disenfranchisement, instead of being discarded as post-election whining, their arguments should have been taken to heart.