Thursday, November 04, 2004

Two (or so) modest proposals

Is voting an activity of the leisure class? We have a system that, on its face at least, makes it possible for every eligible voter to vote. But there are institutional structures in place that make voting unnecessarily difficult. I, for one, have the luxury of quite a bit of flexibility in my schedule. On election day in my area, the polls opened at 7AM. I showed up at 7:10AM, and found a block-long line. It didn't take long for me to decide that I would return after lunch, when the lines were shorter. I could do that because: (1) my job permits it; and (2) I am fortunate enough to live within a quick subway-shot of work. I came back at 2 p.m., found no line, voted, and escaped. Quick and painless.

But it can be slow and painful for some, especially those who don't have flexible work schedules. And those who feel constrained from asking their boss for an hour to go vote. And those who have 2-hour commutes that suck up their available time. And those who have to rush to a second job at 5:30pm. And those who have to pick up, feed, and bathe kids after work. While it might be possible for many people in these situations to fight their way to the polling place, it could take a degree of drive that they do not have. Maybe they set their alarms an hour earlier on election day to try to get to the polls, but wake up and say "Screw it, I need sleep."

It should not be the case that, in order to vote, a person has to either have a freely modifiable work schedule or an intense personal drive to vote. Some jurisdictions have taken some steps to solve the problem, by allowing early voting or liberalizing rules about absentee balloting. But those only solve the problem partially. Many people don't want to vote before election day. Many haven't made up their minds. Many are simply procrastinators who won't take advantage of these programs.

Why not go further? Here are two ideas to make it easier for members of other classes to vote:

1. Make Election Day a national holiday. This isn't a new idea, but it's one worth revisiting. Let's trade off Veterans Day. What better way to celebrate the contributions of our veterans than by voting? Or Columbus Day. (Which would have the collateral benefit of eliminating the yearly debates over whether it is appropriate to celebrate a racist mass-murderer.)

2. Permit voting in multiple polling places. Many people (especially those with long commutes) would find it far easier to vote near work than near home. Why not let them vote in either place? In fact, why not let them vote anywhere they want? In the days of pure paper voting, multiple-polling-place voting would have presented a massive risk of fraud. ("Vote early, vote often, vote in two places.") But it would be easy now to link polling places so that as soon as a person votes in one place, every other place knows about it.

There are other little things we could do as well. How about more federal regulation of voting procedures -- a new Voting Rights Act? Let's have federally-mandated hours for polling places, and uniform, enforceable rules about what to do in the event of delays and other problems at polling places. Let's have a well-trained workforce at polling places equipped to deal with problems as they occur. Let's make the FEC something more than a shadowy, impotent controlled by the unknown and unseen. The current patchwork of state regulations, enforced by low-level partisan bureaucrats, makes a joke of the election process, and does nothing to inspire public confidence in the electoral system.

The get-out-the-vote effort will always butt heads against the social, economic, and psychological forces that constrain human behavior, and thus it can only get us so far. Would this election have come out differently if we had taken more steps to ensure that eligible citizens voted? Maybe. Do we have now have four more years of a president elected by the leisure class? I think so.


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