The first 100 days of the Obama Presidency have come and gone in a state of crisis. For supporters of democracy reform, however, that could describe the last eight years since Bush v. Gore. If the 2008 election vindicated their work, it was only a first step toward redressing the fundamental flaws of our democracy.
In the words of Miles Rapoport, democracy reform advocate and president of the think tank Demos, “A lot of the focus for Demos and for other organizations over the last ten years has been work on the state level. That was a result of the fact that Washington was so hopelessly gridlocked on these issues, it was almost better not to have Washington take them up. The situation is different now. The possibilities for federal reform are better now than they’ve ever been before.”
As the data-crunchers digest the numbers, it’s clear that 2008 had the highest turnout of any presidential election since the voting age was lowered to 18 in 1972: 62% of eligible voters. More African-Americans, Latinos, and young voters made it to the polls than ever before, and the electorate on November 4th looked more like America than it ever has in the past (proportionally speaking). However remarkable, this milestone was partly the result of a slightly lower turnout (in relative terms) by white and elderly voters, and it was far short of the record-setting spectacle many had hoped for. Voting rates in the US continue to lag far behind many of the world’s other oldest democracies. There’s still much to do to make it possible for all Americans to make their voices heard, from enacting election day registration and early voting to making election day a holiday.
As advocates for election reform are quick to observe, the fact that the turnout didn’t shatter records may have been a blessing in disguise. The seven-year-old, nonpartisan Election Protection coalition declared in its report: “Election officials nationwide were grossly under-resourced.” Election Protection’s hotline took nearly a hundred thousand calls on election day alone. As Common Cause’s Tova Wang put it shortly after the election: “We must… wonder what kind of system breakdown would ensue should we ever achieve the turnout levels that are routine in most countries around the world, where participation rates are in the 75-94% range.”
At 62%, Election Protection reported that “hundreds of thousands” of voters still had to wait for hours to cast their ballots. In Detroit some waited for five hours; in St. Louis, six; in the battleground of Chesapeake, VA, seven.
Just over a third of the problems reported to Election Protection’s hotline involved registration. Seemingly unrelated problems — with absentee ballots or polling places, for example — were often really issues with registration as well. As Election Protection director Jonah Goldman observes: “Registration was really the big cancer in the whole voting process.” An MIT study estimates that 2.2 million voters were turned away from the polls due to problems with their registration, and another 2.2 million due to problems with their identification.