Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Forget about a federal Election Day holiday – go with the Oregon model

(It's primary election day in Oregon. If you haven't voted, you've got until 8pm to turn your ballot in. Postmarks don't count. And remember to sign the envelope.)

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama floated the idea of making Election Day a federal holiday, or perhaps moving it to the weekend, as a way of increasing voter participation.

Obama's idea was enthusiastically endorsed by Charlie Pierce, a fellow we like around here quite a lot:
The president just had the best idea he's ever had as president.

His determination to play all four quarters of the game he's in has led him to the obvious conclusion that national election days should be national holidays. This is like a blast of cool, fresh air in a system that's been clogged ever since John Roberts declared the Day of Jubilee. Until we re-establish voting rights for everyone as a national priority, and blow up the fiction of widespread voter fraud, which always was simply an alibi, the only alternative left is to overwhelm the polls. And the only way to do that is to make sure that people have fewer excuses to shirk their duties at the polls.

People have to get habituated to voting again. This is one easy way to do it.

If one disagrees with either of these worthies – whose hearts, let us immediately stipulate, are in the right place on this – one rolls one's own dice. But I do disagree, and pretty strongly. A federal holiday for Election Day (or moving it to the weekend) misses the point. The problem is hardly that Americans are yearning for more time to participate in the Norman Rockwellesque living tableau of exercising their freedom to vote.

Consider the status quo, where Republican-controlled statehouses, encouraged and abetted by the Roberts Court, are ever on the lookout for innovative ways – as well as tried-and-true favorites from the days of Jim Crow – to suppress voting by the wrong people, such as making them stand in line for hours at a polling place, perhaps only to find out that it had mysteriously run out of Democratic ballots, or had been deliberately understaffed, or moved to the far side of town, or closed altogether, or required some form of ID that was expensive if not completely unobtainable. And that's if they haven't had their names struck from the rolls by some bureaucratic error (always an "error;" never a "purge.")

All that a federal holiday for Election Day would accomplish is letting them draw holiday pay for the experience, rather than having to take the day off on their own nickle. I suppose that's an improvement, but not much of one. It certainly doesn't do anything to get at the basic problem, which is that one of our two political parties has vote suppression baked into its basic electoral strategy.

Here is how it's done in Oregon (and in the interview linked to above, Obama does mention Oregon – once):

First, you're automatically registered as a voter when you apply for or renew your Oregon driver's license, unless you specifically opt out. By default you'll be registered as a non-affiliated voter, but you'll get a card in the mail allowing you to declare a party preference within 21 days. (All of these choices can be reversed or changed later.)

But the purpose of the motor voter law and online voter registration is simply to make one more route to registration available. It's not that you have to have a driver's licence to vote in Oregon, it's that if you're getting a license anyway you get brought into the system automatically. If you register by mail or in person at the local county elections office, you can use a current driver's license or an expired license, or a utility bill, a bank statement, a paycheck stub, or a couple of other forms of acceptable ID.

At any time after you register, you can verify your registration online.

Then, about three or four weeks before the next election, you'll receive a copy of the Oregon Voters Guide in the mail from the Secretary of State's office. It's also available online.

And about a week later, you'll get your mail-in ballot. All you have to do is complete it, sign the inner security envelope it goes in, and mail it back or drop it off at a local ballot drop-off point. (I traditionally go to my local public library, about five or six blocks from here.) You can wait until the last moment to drop off your ballot, but if you mail it, it has to arrive at the elections office by 8pm on election Tuesday (postmarks don't count), so you need to put it in the mail by Friday or Saturday to be sure.

That's it. You can also check online to make sure your ballot has been received. (They got mine on the 4th.)

At worst, you may have to make a trip to your local library for an online connection, or hook a ride to the county elections office, but that's it. You certainly won't have to stand in line in for hours or jump through ridiculous administrative hoops to provide documentation.

Is Oregon's system perfected? Nope.

If you don't have easy access to the internet, or readily available transportation, you've still got a couple of hurdles to get over to register and vote. Not usually insurmountable hurdles, but hurdles all the same.

Some Oregon voters got left out of this month's primary because they never returned the card stating their party preference, or returned it too late.

And as an election observer, I've watched fellow observers from the other party try to game the system by challenging signatures that were Hispanic names. (The mechanics are that ballots come in, a worker scans the bar code on the outer envelope and compares the signature on the envelope to the digital image they have on file; the scan also records the ballot receipt in the registry database so that you can't submit more than one ballot. If they don't match or there's no signature, the ballot is pulled for review. If they match, the safety envelopes are sorted by precinct and stored until the polls close.* In the case of those over-eager anti-Hispanic observers, who were leaning over the shoulders of the workers the better to interfere, a call from the lawyers the county Democrats had on tap that day put an end to their harassment.)

And two right-wing PACs appear to behind the forged election materials purporting to be from the Secretary of State's office in a local race.

And finally – this one I'm not quite sure what to make of yet – while Oregon's system has added tens of thousands of new voters since motor voter came online in January, as of last Friday only 25% of Oregonians had cast their ballots. (Interestingly, the last time Oregon saw a surge in new-voter registration, it was in 2008, driven in large part by DNC chair Howard Dean's "fifty state strategy." Once Obama was in office, of course, Dean was replaced and his strategy followed him out the door.) So while I don't think Americans are longing for the pagentry of filling out their ballot behind the curtain at the local grade school, there's the argument to be made that voters don't seem to be terribly motivated. And there are a lot of possible reasons for that; I just don't think that not getting the day off to vote is one of them. If it turned out that registered voters aren't motivated to participate in a system that already makes voting only a little harder than ordering a book from Amazon, it's not immediately clear why they would use a paid holiday to go to the polls, instead of simply taking the day off.

So there's room for improvement. But note that none of these problems would be affected in any way by making Election Day a federal holiday. 

A friend in Indiana sent me this description of his voting experience earlier this month:
In Indiana you can vote for either party in the primary but you must declare which ballot you want to get. I "early" voted last Friday to avoid the lines today, and I had to go to either the Payless Grocery store or the Board of Elections. I chose the Board of Elections. I drove through three construction zones, parked on the city street, walked six blocks, and found myself in the belly of the former J.C. Penney building now converted to a county government office. Up three flights and into an office – where there were two workers and not a single other would-be voter. Wonder why.

I asked for a Democrat ballot and I may have imagined it but I swear to you the young woman working there gave it a sort of mildly confused "humpf" in the "well I'll be damned" spirit. I felt like it was one of those "I must have some of that here somewhere....let me look...oh, yes, here it is..." Perhaps I read too much into her shuffling of papers and voting cards.

I had to present a "photo I.D." approved by the state. I had to orally confirm my birth date. I had to sign a book that confirmed my address. I had to sign my name on a screen and she compared it to the signature in the book, which I had just signed five seconds before. I had to orally confirm my address. I had to sign that I wanted a Democrat ballot.

She programmed the thingy, I put it in the machine, and there were only two races that were contested. That's right: the Democrats had managed to get only two offices (that includes Bernie and Hillary) for which voting choice could be exercised. (Republicans will win both of those in the general election, so I get the reluctance to play the game). Voting did not take long.
So I get it: Even for someone as smart as my friend, and with the resources to work the system correctly that he has, the act of voting – and not just voting in Indiana – is often a dispiriting undertaking. It can take a certain amount of bloody-mindedness even to bother. I don't see how moving his experience to a Saturday would help that.

And likewise, a federal holiday wouldn't do anything to prevent the determined gaming of the system by Republican legislatures, who start by making it harder for the wrong people to register, continue by removing any certainty that once they're registered they'll stay registered, and finish up by making it needlessly difficult to turn in their ballot and uncertain it's getting counted.

At each of those points along the way, Oregon has made registering and voting easier and more accessible. And the ballots are secure, meaning that the right-wing canard about voter fraud is not a plausible objection.

So my advice to President Obama is to forget the federal election holiday plan, if that was ever anything more than blue-skying on his part, and throw his weight behind voting by mail and motor-voter laws.

As readers of this blog know, I've lost patience on more than one occasion with Ron Wyden, but our senior Senator is right on the money here.
“My home state of Oregon has led the nation in making voting more accessible. No one has to take time off work just to exercise his or her constitutional rights,” Wyden said. “My proposition is the rest of our country should follow Oregon’s lead and offer all voters a chance to vote by mail.” [...] “Across the country, there are stories of long lines, inexplicable purges of voter rolls and new requirements that make it harder for citizens to vote. There is no excuse for accepting this state of affairs,” Wyden said. “There is no excuse for citizens in Arizona to wait five hours to cast their ballot. There is no excuse for citizens in Rhode Island to find two out of every three polling places have closed. There is no excuse whatsoever for poor communities and minority communities across this country to see their polling places shuttered.”

Of course, the party that is bringing us back the glory days of Jim Crow will fight this hammer and tong; after all, if you make it easier for the wrong people vote, the next thing that's bound to happen is that they'll be out there voting for the wrong things. But if we're going to have a knock-down-drag-out fight, let's at least have a fight over a proposal that would actually change things for the better.


*Tip of the p3 hat to Ron Morgan of the Washington County Democrats office for walking me through the ballot-handling procedure, which I haven't witnessed first-hand in some time.)

1 comment:

OBS said...

I love the vote by mail we have. I do always take mine to one of the ballot drop boxes though -- it just feels sort of... wrong to put it in a mailbox. It's probably just senseless nostalgia for the voting booth on my part, but oh well.