Amid endless debate over health care reform and a lagging appropriations process, Members are finding some common ground on at least one issue: modernizing the voting system.
Last week, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act, which would enable overseas troops to access a variety of election materials online. Attached to the Defense spending bill, it enjoyed bipartisan support from Members who decried an antiquated voting system that left as many as one out of four overseas ballots uncounted.
It’s the first in what may be several steps to push the voting system into the Internet age. Both Democrats and Republicans say modernizing the system is necessary — though they disagree on the particulars — and several bills are weaving their way through Congress.
The House passed a bill in August that would allow absentee voters to track their ballots online. Introduced by Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), it passed the House by voice vote, and the Senate Rules and Administration Committee is planning a hearing in the “near future,— said spokesman Brian Fallon. Other bills, such as one that would expand no-excuse absentee voting, have only made it past the House Administration Committee.
Perhaps the most ambitious legislation is from Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose bill would require all states to offer online voter registration by 2012 — a tall order for a nation that still largely depends on a paper-based system. Introduced earlier this year, Democrats are now beginning to focus on moving it forward.
Only six states offer some form of online voter registration, while half allow voters to verify their registration online. For most states, the voting system is a hodgepodge of snail mail, voter registration drives and polling places.
Democrats argue that such inefficient registration leads to the disenfranchisement of millions of voters. House Administration Committee spokesman Kyle Anderson pointed to a 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study that found that 2 million to 3 million voters were prevented from voting because of registration and authentication issues.
“This bill takes a huge first step to correct problems associated with eligible voters not correctly being placed on the rolls,— Lofgren said in an e-mail. “Also, many voters expect to be able to register to vote online as part of their normal routine. They are used to the convenience of online tools in their daily life and registering to vote should be just as easy and accessible as banking and bill paying.—
Republicans also say the system should be modernized, but Lofgren’s bill has already raised accusations that unchecked online systems could lead to voter fraud. Unlike rules in states such as Washington and Indiana, Lofgren’s mandate would require states to accept completed voter registration forms without requiring signature verification through a partnership with the state’s drivers’ licensing agency.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the top Republican on the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, said Lofgren’s bill would “force state election officials to open the door to even more fraud.— But McCarthy and other House Administration Republicans are also “working with state election officials to develop incentives to increase online voter registration services,— said Salley Wood, the committee’s Republican spokeswoman.
The Senate may also take up the issue soon. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, is working on a bill to “modernize— the voting system, said Fallon, the committee spokesman. But he declined to provide details on what the bill would include and how closely it would resemble Lofgren’s.
Modernizing voting systems for military voters appears to enjoy the most bipartisan support. Schumer championed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act after McCarthy pushed a similar bill in the House. And during an elections hearing last week, Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) expressed his desire for military personnel to be able to cast ballots online; Todd Rokita, Indiana’s Republican secretary of state, responded that his state had already partnered with the Department of Defense to reach that goal.
Lofgren’s bill so far has only Democratic sponsors, but she said she is open to some changes. So far, state officials have made several suggestions, including linking the online system to driver’s licenses and changing a provision that would allow all voters to register 15 days before an election (which they say is too close to Election Day).
“I am always open to discussions to improve bills,— Lofgren said. “We are listening to all stakeholders, including state and local officials, but also advocates for those who may not have a driver’s license or ID card, including those who have disabilities and the elderly.—