Though uniformly held as sacrosanct, the right to vote in America remains subject to much needless abuse. That's not to say that one or the other political parties still stuffs the ballot box the old-fashioned way, with votes of the dead for their candidates while losing boxes of ballots for opponents. Rather, it's to underscore that despite periodic reforms, flaws in voting processes -- and new ways to blatantly suppress the votes of likely opponents -- continue to haunt our most vital constitutional franchise.
A broad new study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, covering every state in the union, points out a range of common flaws that have become endemic in voting systems in some states: long wait times at the polls particularly in urban areas, problems causing rejection of absentee and provisional ballots, and the accuracy of ballots.
Other reports confirm the obstructive hardships of patently transparent voter suppression tactics, including the manipulation of early voting days and hours, onerous new requirements to meet voter ID standards, and the premature closing of precincts on election days while voters were still waiting outside. These are among the tactics used to thwart or exclude particular blocs of voters and minority groups.
Hours-long wait lines in some key Democratic precincts in Florida, for example, are now estimated to have caused hundreds of thousands of voters to give up waiting, and to go home or back to work without voting. And Tennessee's harsh voter ID system still hinders voting by the elderly, minorities and the disadvantaged.
Such problems have become so perniciously partisan in some states that President Obama is likely to call in his State of the Union address Tuesday for federal minimum time-frames for early voting and online registration.
Even as existing flaws in the voting system are attracting focus, Republicans in select states with a majority of GOP congressional members have begun pushing for a new formula for dividing electoral votes to maximize their clout in presidential elections. The revised formula would give smaller rural congressional districts more electoral votes than those accorded to larger gerrymandered districts in these state's urban centers, negating the popular vote advantage for a Democratic presidential candidate.
If this scheme had been in place in the swing states of Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania last November, Mitt Romney would have won the election with 277 electoral votes to President Obama's 261 electoral total -- never mind Obama's 5-million-vote advantage in the national popular vote.
The problems pointed out by the Pew Charitable Trusts are more invidious, yet perhaps more easily addressed than the new GOP tactics designed to give the presidency to a minority white Republican candidate as the nation's demographics shift.
Problems cited by Pew generally relate to building sufficiently large and well-trained staff for handling mail ballots, provisional ballots and the accuracy of ballots. The problems appear greater in urban centers and less affluent areas. A related study by Charles Stewart III, at M.I.T., found that Democrats had longer wait times than Republicans; that wait times were higher in urban areas; and that whites had shorter wait times than blacks and Hispanics. Surprisingly, early voters had longer wait times on average than those on voted on Election Day.
One pertinent caveat to the litany of problems affecting states' myriad election and ballot problems is this: Washington state and Oregon avoid all the wait time, early voting and precinct-related issues because they have adopted, and virtually perfected, elections based solely on mail-in ballots.
The range of state issues and problems connected to states' disparate voting systems should be subject to an easy fix through uniform model ballots and rules that simplify identity, residency and voter verification standards. That America still lacks a well-functioning election system owes mainly to states' resistance to uniform standards, and to an overly partisan embrace of local and state voting systems that suit the party in power.
Voting rights may be sacred, but power over voting rules still goes to the politicians in power.