President Obama’s State of the Union address included an important call to fix the long lines and other problems that plagued voters in 2012.
The president was near the end of his speech when he brought up the waiting times that stretched as long as six hours in some places and led an estimated 200,000 Florida voters to give up and go home. He rightly cast the issue as one of protecting Americans’ most fundamental rights:
When any Americans – no matter where they live or what their party – are denied that right simply because they can't wait for five, six, seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. That's why, tonight, I'm announcing a non-partisan commission to improve the voting experience in America. And I'm asking two long-time experts in the field, who've recently served as the top attorneys for my campaign and for Governor Romney's campaign, to lead it. We can fix this, and we will. The American people demand it. And so does our democracy.
Kudos to the president for forging a bipartisan approach to address an issue that should inspire bipartisan horror. But for those keeping score at home, the prospects for consensus did not seem good. Democrats in the House chamber applauded wildly, but Speaker John Boehner and some of his Republican colleagues sat on their hands—apparently not thrilled by the idea of passing legislation to protect the rights of voters who veer far away from their own electoral coalition.
President Obama’s nonpartisan commission will find no shortage of ideas to protect and expand the franchise. Voter registries across the nation are hopelessly outdated, leading to confusion and disenfranchisement at the polls. Our democracy would be stronger if more states enacted same day registration, fully implemented the National Voter Registration Act, and cracked down on those who try to intimidate or mislead law-abiding voters every even-numbered year. (Demos laid out some key proposals for reform shortly after the 2012 election.)
If there was any doubt about the need for action, it should been disspelled by the story of a woman who watched the speech from the balcony overlooking the House of Representatives. Desiline Victor, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States from Haiti in 1989, received a standing ovation as the president honored her as an example of civic responsibility:
When she arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. Hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line in support of her. Because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read ‘I Voted.’