As Election Day approaches, the tension between making voting more accessible and ensuring that only those people entitled to vote do so will likely escalate with the two poles divided along party lines. In striking that balance, there should be a presumption of eligibility backstopped by neutral diligence on the part of election officials. That scenario might be easier conceived than achieved, though.
It certainly is not yet the standard by which the debate about election rules has been conducted in recent years. Instead, county clerks and secretaries of state across the country have behaved in shockingly partisan ways with respect to their approach to reforming voting policies in their respective jurisdiction. That is the wrong tack to take.
To simplify the division between Democrats’ and Republicans’ typical stances on the topic, the former tend to favor laws that expand access to as many voters as possible while the latter prefer more strict requirements for voters including identification provisions, limited access to early voting and other safeguards against potential voter fraud. While the latter is important to prevent, the former is even more important to encourage. Finding the right balance ought to err on the side of inclusion, with systems in place to verify voters’ eligibility should a question arise.
Presumption of guilt should not be the guiding ethic in attempts to curtail voting misconduct, but that seems too often to be the case. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler has devoted quite a bit of energy since his election in 2010 to ferreting out voter fraud and, for his efforts, has found 85 people who should not have voted in the 2010 general election. In his efforts, he has attempted to end various counties’ practices of mailing ballots to inactive voters and has cried wolf about widespread fraud across the state. Gessler pressed the point in a recent meeting with the Herald’s editorial board, saying people need to “recognize we do have a problem here, and it is well-documented.” The trouble is, the county clerks who actually conduct elections have been unable to corroborate Gessler’s contention, and his office’s finding of 85 ineligible voters is hardly sufficient to justify sounding the alarm bells at so high a volume.
That does not mean that Gessler and his counterparts across the country should not be vigilant, though. Maintaining electoral integrity is critical to democracy’s functioning. But it should not come at the expense of enfranchisement, and too often that boundary is blurred in favor of partisan shenanigans that are at times outrageous. In Ohio, for instance, counties where voters lean Democrat, election officials are curtailing or even banning outright early voting. In Republican-leaning counties, though, early and weekend voting are intact and encouraged. The Republican secretary of state is supporting this procedural gerrymandering, which disproportionately affects minority voters who tend to vote for Democrats. So, too, do identification requirements in various states because it is blacks, Hispanics and students who are more likely than other voters to not have a government ID.
It is certainly important to ensure that the voting systems in place in Colorado and elsewhere are effective in keeping those who should not vote from doing so, but they should also not prevent legitimate voters from exercising that most fundamental right. Election officials face no small challenge in carrying out this essential duty.