The nation’s byzantine system of voter registration is also desperately in need of an upgrade. In most democracies, the government takes an active role in registering eligible voters and working to keep registrations up to date. The United States, by contrast, has a balky, state-based system of self-registration that presents significant obstacles to prospective voters. The effect on elections is considerable. Only about 68 percent of Americans are registered, compared with 93 percent of Canadians. The CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project estimated that in 2000, 1.5 million to 3 million votes were lost due to registration problems.
Voter rolls — where those who register are listed — are also a problem. Each state has its own roll, and officials exercise wide discretion in aiding — or undermining — voters. In 2000, Florida conducted an infamous pre-election purge of its voter roll that removed as many as 12,000 eligible voters. In the presidential election years since, including 2012, there have been pitched legal battles between state election officials and voting-rights groups over disenfranchising eligible voters through purges.
In many states, voters use electronic voting machines that don’t produce a paper record of votes cast. Without paper confirmation, it’s impossible to know for sure that the results reported electronically accurately reflect voters’ choices. There is always the possibility of a digital glitch or that an election official or hacker has tampered with the machine. A few years back, a team of Princeton University researchers showed how anyone with access to a particular electronic voting machine could steal an election in less than one minute. In addition, far too little attention is given to ballot design, despite Palm Beach County’s infamous “butterfly ballot,” which in the 2000 election exemplified how a poorly devised ballot can confuse voters and even change the outcome of an election.
Vote suppression, which is frequently aimed at minority communities, continues to be a challenge — and could be a greater one now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act. We need tougher penalties for those who use threats or other tactics — such as intentionally circulating false information about the locations and hours of polling places — to try to prevent others from voting.
There are still too many obstacles for people living overseas, particularly members of the military, who want to vote. According to an Overseas Vote Foundation report released in January, about 22 percent of military voters and 17 percent of overseas civilians didn’t receive ballots in 2012.
Desiline Victor is a powerful symbol of the flaws of American democracy, but she is a limited one. She may have waited hours to vote, but she was registered and she was able to cast a ballot; presumably, it counted. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration needs to ease the burden on Victor. But it must also work for all the other eligible voters whose democratic rights are thwarted — in so many ways — by a badly broken system.
Adam Cohen is the author of “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America.”