Posts Tagged osce
Obama’s commission launched with earlier recommendations on U.S. election administration largely forgotten
More than six months since Election Night 2012 when President Obama stated that “we have to fix that” in a reference to long lines at polling places, the Presidential Commission on Election Administration was finally launched yesterday with the appointment of ten commission members, including two co-chairs.
With a limited mandate to shorten lines at polling places, promote the efficient conduct of elections, and provide better access to the polls for all voters, the Commission will present a final report to the president within six months of its first public meeting, expected to be held next month.
Headed by Co-Chairs Bob Bauer and Ben Ginsberg – a Democrat and a Republican – the commissioners are “experts in election administration, policy and procedures, or leaders from customer service-oriented businesses and industry,” according to the Commission’s official press release.
“The President’s expectation is clear,” said Bauer. “The Commission is charged with developing recommendations based on the best information available for administrative practices that afford voters the opportunity to cast ballots without undue delay and improve their overall experience.”
Election 2012 – like many U.S. elections in recent years – was marred by long lines in several states, especially Florida, Ohio and Virginia. The causes were typically a combination of broken-down equipment, insufficient training of poll workers, and an organized GOP effort to roll back early voting days, which increased the volume of voters on Election Day.
Yesterday’s announcement of the Commission’s composition received a lukewarm response from election reform advocates, some of whom pointed out that bold action is needed to tackle the U.S.’s many electoral problems, and the appointment of another commission – especially one with such a limited mandate – is anything but bold action.
“A number of election experts have expressed doubts that the panel will have much impact because the goals are modest,” reported NPR. Academics, activists, election officials and international observers have been studying ways to improve election administration for years, and it’s unclear what, if anything, new the commission can add to this knowledge in six months.
In a statement, League of Women Voters President Elizabeth McNamara lamented that Obama’s presidential commission is “a weak response to a big problem.” She expressed disappointment in Obama’s response to improving U.S. elections to date and reiterated LWV’s calls for “bold changes like those suggested in our four point plan to make elections free, fair and accessible.” Specifically, LWV wants to see secure online voter registration, permanent and portable statewide voter registration, expanded early voting, and improved polling place management.
Other election reform advocates were more optimistic about the new Commission, however.
Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center, which has extensively documented the causes of long lines at polls and advocated various solutions, said in a statement:
We are delighted the president’s voting commission will soon be up and running. The commission will spotlight the urgent need to improve our election system to ensure it works well for all eligible Americans. We urge the commission to recommend bold solutions to modernize voting. America needs to upgrade how we register voters, when we vote, and how we manage polling places. We hope this will be a great step forward to improve the way America runs elections and ensure the system is free, fair, and accessible.
Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine and publisher of the Election Law Blog, explained that the commission is seeking to avoid contentious issues such as general voting rights in order to keep the panel from being bogged down in partisan squabbling.
“While including voting-rights advocates might make sense in the abstract, the Commission is walking a difficult political line to stay above the partisan fray as much as possible,” Hasen said. “Including voting-rights advocates would have led those on the right to call for more balance.”
McNamara, however, disagreed. “If they’re not talking about secure online voter registration that’s available to everybody, not just those with driver’s licenses; if they’re not talking about early voting; if they’re not talking about polling place resources; if they’re not talking about permanent and portable voter registration, then we just don’t believe that they’re going to be talking about the issues that really cause the lines on Election Day,” she said.
It could also be noted that the long waiting times on Election Day are really just the tip of the iceberg of an electoral system plagued by partisan manipulation and racial bias. As NAACP Head Benjamin Jealous has called it, “the hyperpartisanization” of election administration has enabled “a strategy to suppress the participation of working-class people, of senior citizens, of students, who tend to vote for the Democrats, by making it unbearable.”
He noted in an interview earlier this year that in the secretary of states’ and county clerks offices around the country, there are “people coming in with a real, you know, partisan purpose in what should be a very kind of democratic—small-d—mission.”
Jealous said that in Florida alone, long Election Day lines around the state may have turned away more than 200,000 frustrated would-be voters who gave up and went home before they cast ballots. According a report published this month by the American Bar Association, there was a clear racial and political bias in the average waiting times, with blacks, Hispanics and Democrats facing significantly longer waits. According to the ABA’s data, black voters experienced an average 23.3 minute wait and Hispanic voters experienced an 18.7 minute wait, compared to an 11.6 minute wait by white voters. Similarly, strong Democratic voters had a significantly longer average waiting time (15.6 minutes) than strong Republican voters (11.4 minutes).
“And this is the, if you will, the most basic, most rudimentary form of voter suppression,” according to Ben Jealous. “It’s—what we’ve seen since 2000 is, whether it’s secretaries of state or whether it’s county clerks, you know, the folks who are running it in their county, it’s become very politicized, and folks really making, in many cases, explicitly political decisions about where they even put these machines, who gets a few machines and long lines, who gets a lot of machines and no lines, trying to skew the outcome.”
The root problem here, of course, is that partisan interests are given free reign over election administration in the United States. From the national level to the state level to the local level, elected representatives and partisan hacks manipulate and game the system to ensure preferred electoral outcomes, in a system generally out of line with international electoral standards.
As the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights rather mildly put it in its final report on the 2012 U.S. election, released last February:
General elections are administered at the state level and there is no federal election management body with oversight responsibilities. On the state level, administrative authority is vested in the respective state secretary or state election board. However, the greater part of election administration is typically delegated to county or lower-level election officials, resulting in a wide variety of electoral practices across the country.
Overall, the election administration performed their duties in a professional and transparent manner and enjoyed the trust of the majority of stakeholders. The composition of election administration bodies varies across states. While some senior election officials are appointed, others are elected. Election administration bodies are often partisan, although 19 states and the District of Columbia provide bipartisan or independent bodies. Very few OSCE/ODIHR LEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the impartiality of county election officials. However, some county-level election supervisors ran on party tickets for re-election in 2012, raising possible conflicts of interest.
In order to avoid these conflicts of interest, the OSCE recommended that “if senior election officials at state and lower levels are elected, the states could consider holding such elections in non-federal election years, to avoid any real or perceived conflicts of interest.” Further, “there should be a national body with sufficient resources and outreach capacity to provide guidance on election administration and serve as a central clearinghouse to develop good electoral practices. Congress should ensure that such a body has the necessary financial and human resources to fulfil these duties in an effective manner.”
In its preliminary post-election statement issued in November 2012, the OSCE reminded U.S. authorities of the 87 recommendations of the 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, the so-called Carter-Baker Commission, most of which have never been implemented.
The Carter-Baker Commission’s most important recommendation was for the United States to move toward nonpartisan election administration. Carter-Baker recommended in particular that states strip election responsibilities from partisan elected secretaries of state, placing them instead in the hands of professional election administrators appointed by governors and approved by a supermajority vote of state legislators.
Implementing this one recommendation from the final report of the 2005 Carter-Baker Commission would likely have a much greater impact in ensuring fair elections in the U.S. than any number of limited recommendations that might emerge from Obama’s newly appointed commission.
The problem, however, is that moving to a truly nonpartisan method of election administration could actually open up the U.S. electoral system to multi-party competition – including providing a level playing field for independent parties such as the Greens and the Libertarians – and this is the last thing that the two-party duopoly in Washington wants.
An international body last week unanimously adopted a resolution condemning U.S. secrecy regarding the CIA’s extraordinary program – secrecy that is effectively stonewalling a number of European investigations into the program of secret arrests and torture of terror suspects.
The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly – a 320-member organization comprising lawmakers from Europe, North America and Central Asia – adopted the resolution in plenary session on July 9.
Supporting the criminal investigation carried out by Polish authorities into the rendition program and welcoming attempts by British parliamentarians to ascertain the level of the United Kingdom’s involvement, the resolution “insists that the United States Government co-operates with European investigations” and “calls upon the United States to release any pertinent information to appropriate investigators.”
In introducing the resolution on July 6, British parliamentarian Tony Lloyd recalled that when President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, one of his first acts was to issue executive orders prohibiting rendition and torture. However, he said, there are “strong evidential trails that suggest members of the OSCE family were involved in this practice of unlawful transfer of prisoners” throughout Europe, the Middle East and Afghanistan. He pointed to cases of prisoners being unlawfully detained by the CIA in Italy and the United Kingdom.
In the UK, he said, an official inquiry came to a “premature end” despite the fact that the practice of extraordinary rendition is “clearly illegal,” in violation of Article 3 of the Convention against Torture, which has been adopted by every member of the OSCE. He reminded OSCE parliamentarians that there were 1,245 CIA flights from European territory to countries where suspects faced torture.
In March, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk confirmed that his country’s former spy chief, Zbigniew Siemiątkowski, is facing criminal charges in connection with a probe by state prosecutors into the Polish role in the CIA’s rendition and secret prison program.
The future of the Polish investigation is in doubt, however, with U.S. authorities refusing to turn over relevant documents to the prosecution, reports the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
In April, U.S. intelligence agencies including the CIA and the FBI won a court ruling allowing them to continue withholding evidence from British MPs about UK involvement in the rendition.
In reaction to this court ruling, Lloyd, who co-chairs the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Extraordinary Rendition, said that “It’s an abuse of the spirit of freedom of information.” He claimed that the U.S. agencies were trying to avoid official embarrassment on both sides of the Atlantic by using a narrow legal exemption to prevent the disclosure of critical papers.
“This is still an ongoing issue,” Lloyd said in introducing the resolution last week. “This story of extraordinary rendition is not finished.” He pointed out that “it is clear that the United States was the author of these practices,” but noted that “it was the United States acting in concert with other members of the OSCE.”
It is therefore “necessary to keep up the political pressure for proper answers,” he said. “We need to know the truth of what took place. We need to give a strong signal that this type of activity is not something that has any role to play in the fight against terrorism.”
Toward this end, the resolution introduced by Lloyd reminds OSCE member states of their “binding obligations under international law to not only refrain from torture, or inhuman, cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment; but to also investigate allegations of torture.”
It further calls on all OSCE members to investigate allegations that their territory has been used to assist CIA-chartered flights secretly transporting detainees to countries where they may face torture or other ill-treatment.
Following Lloyd’s introduction, U.S. Congressman Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.) took the floor largely in support of the resolution, stating that “No country should evade a discussion of its own domestic issues.” He said that the issues of rendition and torture “remain controversial in the United States” and welcomed Lloyd’s attempt to focus attention on the matter.
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
– International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 25
The state of Florida, epicenter of the disputed 2000 presidential election, is once again placing the spotlight on long-standing electoral problems in the United States. A string of statutes and rules adopted recently by the state appear designed to limit the ability of voters to participate in the November 2012 general elections, targeting, in particular, African Americans and Latinos.
The state’s voter suppression activities are leading to a slew of legal challenges claiming that the changes violate the Constitution and federal law, and are also becoming a concern to the international community. As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and signatory to the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document, the U.S. has agreed to certain commitments on holding free and fair elections, commitments that are being flouted by efforts to suppress the vote in Florida and elsewhere.
International election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has been monitoring elections in the U.S. since the disputed election of 2000, conducted an electoral “needs assessment mission” to the United States in April and issued a critical preliminary report last month.
On the domestic front, voter advocacy groups sued the state last week, claiming that its recent voter purge targeting noncitizens unfairly discriminates against minorities. While 14 percent of voters in Florida are Hispanic, the complaint points out, 61 percent of the names on the state’s purge list are Hispanic.
The Miami Herald reports that “the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Miami, adds to a growing volume of litigation over the state’s decision to target more than 2,600 registered voters whose citizenship was questioned in a driver license database.”
The U.S. Justice Department sued the state last month to block the voter purge, claiming it violates a federal law that prohibits the systematic removal of voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election. The ACLU and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights have also sued to block removal efforts in five counties under federal oversight in electoral matters.
According to the Herald:
The latest lawsuit, filed on behalf of two Hispanic women in Miami-Dade County, charges that the purge violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits any action that denies or abridges the voting rights of racial or ethnic minorities. It also echoes the federal government’s argument that the National Voter Registration Act prohibits any systematic removal of ineligible voters less than 90 days from the date of a federal election, which in Florida is Aug. 14.
“What we know so far is this: It’s devastating for the Latino and black communities in Florida,” said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel to Latino Justice, a New York group that joined in the lawsuit. “You have a clear racial impact.”
The lawsuits over the controversial voter purge coincide with other legal challenges to voter suppression efforts in Florida, including new voter ID requirements and restrictions on voter registration efforts. Late last month, a federal judge in Florida blocked parts of a state law that placed “harsh and impractical” restrictions on civic groups that help new voters register to vote.
The Florida rules restricting voter registration “impose a harsh and impractical 48-hour deadline for an organization to deliver applications to a voter registration office and effectively prohibit an organization from mailing,” the judge said. “And the statute and rule impose burdensome record-keeping and reporting requirements that serve little if any purpose, thus rendering them unconstitutional.”
Most recently, the Department of Justice has challenged newly adopted rules in Florida that cut back on early voting hours, arguing that the restrictions unfairly burden the state’s minorities.
On Thursday, U.S. Justice Department lawyers argued before a three-judge District Court panel in Washington that the changes in early voting hours violate Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which requires that states with a history of discrimination obtain federal approval before making changes to electoral rules.
Section 5 also mandates that courts review the law for retrogression, anything that would leave minority groups worse off than they were before the law’s enactment.
During the 2008 election, about 55 percent of black voters cast their ballots during the early voting period that would be reduced under the law, according to data from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In 2008, the OSCE noted that “the increased possibility to vote early was a highly positive step for the U.S. electoral process.” That year, more than a third of American voters voted early: 18 percent of them cast their ballots at early voting sites, while 19 percent voted by mail. This was seen as especially encouraging because in past election cycles, hours-long lines effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters.
Following the midterm elections of 2010, OSCE observers again noted the beneficial development of early voting, which facilitated the participation of millions of Americans and “eased any capacity problems that might have occurred.”
These positive developments, however, are being rolled back across the country this year. In addition to Florida, state legislatures adopted legislation to restrict early voting in Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Another positive development that OSCE observers have noted in the past – but being reversed this year – is the loosening of restrictions on the voting rights of ex-prisoners. In line with OSCE recommendations, in 2007, Florida Governor Charlie Crist pushed through new procedures to speed up the process for most felons (excluding murderers and sex offenders) seeking a restoration of voting rights.
In its final report on the 2010 midterm elections, the OSCE said that “recent examples of loosening of restrictions” on the voting rights of former prisoners “are a welcome development.”
In its recent preliminary report on the 2012 elections, however, the OSCE lamented that in 2011, “Florida and Iowa passed legislation that reversed previous reforms, re-introducing permanent disenfranchisement of prisoners and ex-prisoners.”
Florida also joins Texas in adopting laws making voter registration more difficult. The two states have a long history of restricting voter registration drives, although neither has reported cases of registration fraud in the past election cycle.
The OSCE report observes that in the U.S., “voter registration and identification are politically polarized, split on the issue of enfranchisement versus integrity of the vote.”
Noting the Justice Department’s role in monitoring state implementation of federal election law, the OSCE pointed out that the DoJ is actively involved in several cases, including on redistricting and voter identification.
“Contrary to good electoral practice,” however, the final decisions on some changes to state electoral law “may only be reached in the weeks shortly before election day, which may affect electoral participants’ understanding of provisions or their ability to fulfil their roles effectively.”
In other words, by the time some of these legal challenges are decided, it may be too late and thousands of voters could be unfairly disenfranchised.
Since the United States began submitting to international election observation following the disputed presidential contest of 2000, certain criticisms have reemerged year after year. While some progress on was noted in 2008 and 2010, changes to the electoral framework since then have revealed a decided indifference of U.S. authorities in meeting international obligations on democratic elections.
The election observation missions of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe – a 56-nation body to which the U.S. belongs, which is mandated with determining members’ adherence to election commitments laid out in the 1990 OSCE Copenhagen Document – have repeatedly pointed to systemic problems in the U.S. electoral framework.
In the 2004 election, the OSCE noted that “allegations of electoral fraud and voter suppression, primarily among minorities, were widely reported and presented to the EOM in the pre-election period.” The observers expressed concern that “the widespread nature of these allegations may undermine confidence in the electoral process.”
Following the 2008 election, Audrey Glover, the Head of the OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission, stated, “The controversies during the campaign over persisting allegations of election irregularities showed that electoral reform efforts must continue to address remaining shortcomings and allow voters to fully regain confidence in the election system.”
Redistricting and Gerrymandering
The OSCE has also noted the fact that “only a small proportion of the elections” for the 435 Congressional districts are actually competitive. “This was attributed largely to the way in which Congressional district boundaries are drawn so as to favour the incumbent party,” the OSCE observed.
The OSCE has recommended that “consideration could be given to introducing procedures for drawing district boundaries that will be based on criteria other than voters’ voting histories and perceived future voting intentions.”
Despite this recommendation, U.S. election authorities have continued the practice of gerrymandering, or drawing district boundaries with a high degree of predictability as to the outcome of the election. This questionable practice has become particularly pronounced in the current election cycle.
Because of population changes, 18 states had changes in their number of seats: Texas and Florida gained four and two seats, respectively, while Ohio and New York both lost two. Six states gained a single seat while eight lost one. These changes affect the number of votes each state will cast in the Electoral College for the 2012 presidential election.
The 2010 census showed an enormous population increase in Texas, in particular, with over four million new residents, the vast majority of whom are Latinos. That growth required the State of Texas to redraw its electoral districts for the U.S. Congress, the State Senate, and the State House of Representatives, in order to comply with the Constitution’s one-person, one-vote rule.
Texas is a “covered jurisdiction” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires states with a history of discrimination to submit any changes they make to their election procedures to the U.S. Department of Justice or the D.C. Circuit Court for preclearance. Preclearance is necessary to demonstrate that the proposed changes “neither [have] the purpose nor will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race or color.” In July 2011, the Texas legislature submitted new electoral maps to the D.C. Circuit Court for review.
The U.S. Justice Department voiced opposition to preclearance, alleging the Texas legislative plan unfairly discriminated against minority voters by giving no “electoral opportunity” for Latinos to be elected.
The most heated fight surrounds Dallas and Fort Worth, where Republicans drew congressional districts that are largely rural, except for small portions that include urban neighborhoods where minorities live. Minority groups complain that despite an 83.7 percent growth in the Latino population and a 34.1 percent increase in African Americans in Dallas County, the Texas legislature did not create a single new congressional district where minorities could realistically succeed.
While the pre-clearance process was pending in Washington, D.C., various plaintiffs brought suit in Texas, claiming that the Texas maps violate the U.S. Constitution and Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Noting that the D.C. Court could not finish its work in time for Texas to conduct its 2012 primary elections, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, based in San Antonio, produced its own interim plans. However, the court produced maps which had little bearing with those proposed by Texas’ Republican-controlled legislature.
To decide the validity of the San Antonio maps, Texas filed a motion with the U.S. Supreme Court, which argued in January 2012 that the U.S. District Court should not have ignored the state legislature’s plans when drafting the interim map. On February 28, the federal district court submitted new maps ensuring that both the Republican and the Democratic Party receive two of the four new congressional seats each.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, the NAACP, and three other groups criticized the new maps, arguing they don’t do enough to guarantee minority voters have equal representation. The maps, they explain, reflect the same “intentional discrimination” as the Texas legislature’s maps and either split up minority groups so that their candidates can’t win, or pack minorities into only a handful of districts.
The minority groups have now proceeded to ask the D.C. Circuit Court to expedite its ruling on whether the Texas Legislature’s original maps violate the federal Voting Rights Act. Since national party rules require primary elections be held by June 26, failure to rule in time would mean that this year’s Texas elections would be held under the temporary maps proposed by the San Antonio court.
Minority representatives hope that a favorable decision from the D.C. Circuit Court would compel the federal district court to alter districts ruled to be in violation. In such a case, the Texas primaries would be pushed back for a third time. However, the San Antonio court is not bound to make changes to the 2012 maps based on what is handed down from the three-judge panel in Washington, DC. In that scenario, minority groups would likely appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In addition to the redistricting controversies, another contentious issue emerging in the current election is regarding the U.S.’s problematic election administration and voting registration system.
In 2008 and 2010, the OSCE noted that the decentralized nature of the U.S. electoral system creates vulnerabilities “in particular with regards to the integrity and complexity of voter registration, voter identification and electronic voting machines.” The OSCE observed that “the possibilities to verify the correctness of the voter register and to crosscheck it with neighboring states, in order to avoid double registrations or multiple voting, are limited and not widely used.”
With these international concerns unaddressed by U.S. election authorities, the systemic problems of the decentralized electoral framework are becoming more pronounced.
In February 2012, research commissioned by the Pew Center on the States showed that the U.S. voter registration system is plagued with errors and inefficiencies, which “undermine voter confidence and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of … elections.”
The Pew Center pointed out that “the paper-based processes of most registration systems present several opportunities for errors.” In particular, the system is unable to keep up with voters as they move or die. In turn, this can lead to problems with the registration rolls, “including the perception that they lack integrity or could be susceptible to fraud.”
The research reveals that:
- approximately 24 million – one in every eight – active voter registrations in the U.S. are no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate;
- more than 1.8 million deceased individuals are still listed as active voters;
- approximately 2.75 million people have active registrations in more than one state.
Americans are generally unaware of these registration problems. According to the study, one in four voters falsely assumes that election officials update registrations automatically. Additionally, more than two million provisional ballots were cast in 2008, requiring election officials to verify each voter’s eligibility. Almost half of those were rejected because the voter was not on the registration rolls.
Further, at least 51 million people – nearly one in four eligible citizens – are not registered to vote.
New restrictions on voting
In the past, one of the few positive developments in U.S. elections that international observers have noted was the effort to increase voter participation by same-day registration initiatives and the introduction of early voting in 2008 and 2010.
In 2008, the OSCE noted that “the increased possibility to vote early was a highly positive step for the U.S. electoral process.” That year, more than a third of American voters voted early: 18 percent of them cast their ballots at early voting sites, while 19 percent voted by mail. This was seen as a particularly positive step, because in past election cycles, hours-long lines effectively disenfranchised tens of thousands of voters.
Following the midterm elections of 2010, OSCE observers again noted the beneficial development of early voting, which facilitated the participation of millions of Americans and “eased any capacity problems that might have occurred.”
However, these positive efforts to increase voter enfranchisement are being rolled back in the current election cycle.
In 2011, state legislatures across the country put forward legislation restricting early voting, citing financial and administrative burdens and sometimes the risk of fraud. Laws restricting early voting were signed into law in Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Bills are pending final approval in North Carolina, Georgia, and New Jersey.
New requirements have also been instated this year to make it more challenging for eligible citizens to ensure that they are registered to vote on Election Day.
Since the previous election cycle, a number of state legislatures have pushed legislation to regulate and restrict community-based voter registration drives. Bills placing new restrictions on voter registration groups have been proposed in seven states: California, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Texas.
The bills have been signed into law in Florida and Texas, two states with a long history of restricting voter registration drives, although neither has reported cases of registration fraud in the past election cycle.
Another target in this election cycle is election day registration, also known as same day registration.
Prior to 2011, eight states – Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming – allowed for same day registration, meaning that citizens could register and vote at their local polling place at the same time. In addition, North Carolina allowed for same day registration for the early voting period and Ohio for the first week of early voting. In Connecticut and Rhode Island, election day registration was provided under special circumstances.
Several legislatures have moved to eliminate same day registration, with bills introduced in Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Ohio. Efforts to repeal election day registration have fallen almost entirely along partisan lines, with most Republican legislators supporting it, while all Democratic legislators opposing it.
The most widespread legislative development since the previous election cycle involves the imposition of stricter identification requirements on voters.
Prior to the 2010 midterm elections, only Indiana and Georgia had strict photo ID requirements on voters. Since then, laws have been introduced in Alabama, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Bills were passed but vetoed in five additional states: Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, and North Carolina. Moreover, a number of other states have active photo ID bills pending on ongoing legislative sessions.
Voting rights advocates maintain that the new legislation is designed to target a wide portion of the electorate – in particular low-income, young, and older citizens, and especially minorities – that do not have state‑issued photo IDs. It is estimated that 11 percent of U.S. citizens do not possess the required identification, and that millions of Americans could be disenfranchised by the new laws.
The largely unregulated role of private money in U.S. elections resulting from the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision that allowed unlimited spending by corporations, unions and private individuals is another area of concern.
The vast campaign spending in 2010 and the widespread use of negative advertising led the 2010 OSCE election observation mission to describe a “dirty campaign environment” with “money playing a significant role in creating an uneven playing field between candidates.”
“Upwards of four billion dollars were spent on the campaigns, making it the most expensive mid-term election in the United States to date,” OSCE observers noted. “About three-quarters of that money was spent on political campaign ads on television and radio. The ads inundated the airwaves, made huge profits for many television and radio stations, and also turned off many voters.”
With a legislative attempt to mitigate the effects of Citizens United failing in 2010, the problem of out-of-control campaign financing is reaching new heights in the current election cycle. Since July 2010, the number of registered “Super PACs” spending unlimited amounts of money has increased to 354. As of March 6, they had reported total receipts of more than $130 million and independent expenditures totaling almost $98 million in the 2012 election cycle.
Other areas of concern
Since the last presidential election, many other important recommendations from the OSCE on how to improve the deeply flawed U.S. electoral system have remained unaddressed by U.S. policymakers. These include:
- decreasing the number of required signatures for nomination of independent or third-party candidates
- lifting the restriction of voting rights for felons and ex-felons
- providing full representation rights in Congress for all US citizens, including those of Washington DC and U.S. territories
- establishing minimum standards for access of international observers invited by the U.S. authorities
- introducing legal safeguards against possible partisan conduct of election officials
- promoting voter registration, including through civil education programs, and considering possibilities for ‘automatic’ voter registration based on other interactions of citizens with the state
- enhancing transparency and the integrity of electronic voting equipment
- reviewing the campaign finance system
But as the OSCE stated in its Needs Assessment Mission Report prior to the 2008 general elections, “several issues raised in previous OSCE/ODIHR reports, and those highlighted by OSCE/ODIHR NAM interlocutors, merit further attention.”
With Election 2012 now fully underway, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the only changes being made to the U.S. electoral system represent steps backwards rather than forwards.
Instead of heeding previous recommendations from the international community or further developing areas of progress – such as the implementation of early voting in 2008 – the United States is instead backsliding into an even less democratic electoral system.
Besides ensuring pre-determined electoral outcomes, these changes are also sure to further erode public trust in elections, leading to decreased participation in voting and more entrenched cynicism across the country.
They also demonstrate a profound double standard by the United States government, which often cites OSCE election-related commitments when criticizing other countries, but clearly cannot be bothered to live up to the same commitments at home.
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