Just days after the 2013 elections, former Congresswoman Mary Bono and I were on MSNBC discussing voter-ID laws. A moderate Republican, Bono tried hard to shift the focus to a universally hated aspect of American elections—the lines. “There should be no reason there should be long lines, ever,” she said. “Why [can’t they] orchestrate and engineer a solution that you get to the polls, and there’s 15 minutes, guaranteed in and out, and you vote?”
It’s a good question. Even if we forget about the disturbing rash of voting restrictions—the ID laws, the cutbacks to early voting, the efforts to make it harder to register—a basic problem remains: We don’t invest enough in our elections. Across the country, machines are old and breaking down, and we’re failing to use new technology that could clean up our voter rolls and make it easier to predict—and thus prevent—those long lines. The odds of Congress allocating the billions it would take to help localities buy new voting machines and solve other voting problems are slim to none. But there’s already an agency in place that can help jurisdictions run better elections. All Congress has to do is allow it to function. But for House Republicans, that’s asking too much.
It was only 12 years ago, in the aftermath of the 2000 election, that Democrats and Republicans together passed the Help America Vote Act. The law put $3.9 billion toward new machines and created the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to oversee their distribution, approve standards and certifications, and study elections administration to find patterns of problems and models for solving them. The commission, with spots for two Democratic appointees and two Republicans, worked well for a while. But for the past two years, the EAC has operated—after a fashion—with zero commissioners. President Barack Obama put forward two nominees in 2010 who fell victim to Republican gridlock; now, with the Senate’s filibuster rules scaled back, they may get a chance to take their positions. Even then, however, the “zombie commission,” as it’s sometimes called, will lack the voting quorum the law requires to get big things done; Republicans are not exactly itching to nominate their two commissioners.
This means that we’re relying on ever-more-outdated technology; the commission hasn’t updated its voting-machine standards since 2005. Compliance is voluntary under federal law, but the vast majority of states require election officials to follow the EAC standards. The only approved voting machines were built in 2005 or earlier; imagine being stuck using a laptop that old, and you’ll have an idea of what elections administrators are facing. The software is usually proprietary, meaning you can’t just go online and get an update. If a machine breaks down, there’s no easy fix; instead, it most likely has to be replaced—and voting machines are not sold at Best Buy. The jurisdictions that need new equipment—and could afford it without federal help—are stuck choosing among machines that were designed a decade ago.
Without updated standards, companies have little incentive to come up with new technologies. Even so, we’re missing out on some promising innovations. In Texas, for instance, Travis County is creating a system that would give voters the same technology that restaurants use to place orders. In drawings, these machines resemble tablets—equipment most voters already know how to use. But without the EAC commissioners to approve this new technology, it’s unclear whether it can be implemented.
If lawmakers don’t make functional elections a priority between now and 2016—at a minimum, approving a full slate of commissioners—we could see even longer lines than the ones that plagued the 2012 election in states like Florida and Wisconsin, and in counties such as Richland, South Carolina, where some waited a whopping seven hours. Why so long? Because Richland County, like so many others, had a lot more voters than in 2010—28 percent—and 12 percent fewer working machines.
We need a fully functioning elections commission that can approve new machines, if not help pay for them. The commission doesn’t have to be a missed opportunity; already, despite the lack of leadership, it’s the national clearinghouse for elections data and information on voter registration. With congressional authorization, the EAC could do far more; for instance, it could help states coordinate—and tidy up—their voter rolls.
You might think this would be one issue ripe for bipartisanship; couldn’t we at least agree to let the commission do its job? But Republicans—the same folks who are constantly bemoaning the peril of voter fraud—are so hostile to the idea that they’ve voted multiple times in the House to dismantle the commission, arguing that it’s just another example of wasteful spending.
Both sides of the aisle continue to think of ways to run elections better. But until we get a quorum of commissioners, those bright ideas will languish, long lines will continue to discourage voters, and we’ll all have to cross our fingers that the problems don’t blow up into a crisis.