Holy cow! Can’t we figure out how to vote?

By Ashley Bean Thornton

This whole thing with the Texas Voting Bill has gotten under my skin.  Good grief!  It seems like grown people should be able to figure out a way to work together that does not include a bunch of them having to leave the state, while the rest stand around and crow about how they are “still on the job” when no one has gotten anything done.  So…I took the extreme step, for me, of actually reading the whole (boring!) current bill to see what all the hubbub is about.   

The result is that I am even more disappointed with the whole process than I was when I started reading – not because there is anything in the bill that is particularly egregious or particularly wonderful – but because it seems like to me that people who were willing to work together in good faith could pretty easily make some tweaks to this bill that would make it “good enough” that we could move forward. It aggravates me that we have elected a group of people who are having such a tough time figuring out a way to do this.

I think the first step is to work from a couple of broad principles:

1.  Most of us want basically the same thing.  – There probably are some evil geniuses out there who are scheming to suppress the vote, and maybe there are even some extremely liberal people out there who, as Ted Cruz seems to believe, want to make it possible for millions of undocumented immigrants to vote, but I think most of us BY FAR just want a system and process for voting that makes it as convenient as possible for every eligible voter to vote while also guarding against unacceptable levels of fraud.

2. No system is ever going to be perfect. – Yes, we should work diligently and continuously to make it easier and easier for eligible voters to vote, and, Yes,  it is a serious process with serious consequences, and some sacrifices in convenience need to be made in order to protect the integrity of the process.  It is probably never going to be as convenient to vote as it is to pick up a Diet Coke at the Quickie Mart or order a new pair of socks from Amazon – the stakes are too high.  On the other hand, yes, we should diligently work to protect the process from fraud, but we will never be able to guarantee that there is absolutely no chance that fraud could occur.  The cost of mistrust for that is way too high.  We would either have to make the process so expensive that we wouldn’t want to pay for it, or we would make it so restrictive that it would infringe on the very freedom it is meant to protect.  There will have to be some trade-offs between security and convenience.  Yes, we can make both the inconvenience small and the fraud small, and we can and should work to make it smaller and smaller, but to insist that one or the other is perfect is impractical at best and obstructionist at worst.

With those two principles in mind, probably 80 or 90% of the current bill is fine.  Most of it is legitimate tightening up of rules and processes that need to be tuned up and adjusted because of advances in technology, changes in societal expectations and preferences, and weaknesses in the system that came to light under the stress of the pandemic.

There are, however, some sticking points in the bill that legitimately need to be negotiated. There may be others that were too buried in “governmentese” for me to decipher, but these are the ones that stood out to me.  I think we would make better progress if instead of framing them as “voter suppression” or “disregard for election integrity” we could frame them as legitimate points of concern that need to be addressed.

1. What do we want to do about some of the creative ways we modified the voting process because of the pandemic? – 24 hour voting, voting in parking garages, voting in tents and temporary structures, drive through voting  — these were all new experiments we tried because of the pandemic. This bill specifically seeks to make most of these things against the rules.  On the one hand, why wouldn’t we take advantage of what we learned during the pandemic to make voting more convenient all the time?  On the other hand, we weren’t doing these things before the pandemic so “outlawing” them does not make it any harder to vote than it was before.  On the one hand, these practices did serve to make voting more convenient for some, and did seem to increase voter turn out – although it’s hard to tell the real effect because it was such a strange election.  On the other hand, we probably do need to take a hard look at these new practices, which were implemented very quickly , and see if we need to do a few things to make sure they do not set us up for an unacceptable level of fraud exposure.

Possible way forward:  Instead of outlawing these innovative practices, why don’t we make some rules about what needs to be in place in any voting location to make it secure.  For example, voting stations need to be private, election officials and watchers need to be able to do their jobs, need to be able to protect against electioneering at the polls, videotaping needs to be available…I don’t know what the rules would be.  If all these rules can be met, however, then the actual place and process are flexible.  If my local elections office  can set up a tent at Walmart and provide for the agreed upon security measures, then people can vote at Walmart. If they can set up a situation that meets the rules, but allows people to drive through…then we can do that. We could come up with standards for making in-person voting secure that are building and process neutral.

2. Mail in voting – Certainly the 2020 election pushed our mail in voting capacity to the limit.  No doubt we need to take a look at it and make sure it is secure.  This bill is built on the notion that mail in voting is only allowed under a restricted set of circumstances (disabled, over 65, out of country, etc.) and seeks to put in place rules that would help make sure that only people who meet those special circumstances should be allowed to vote by mail.  Another way of looking at it though is, if anyone is going to vote by mail, the process should be secure.  And if the process is secure, then why not let anyone who wants to vote by mail do it?  Instead of strengthening our rules about restricting mail in voting to a specific set of voters, we could be strengthening our rules and processes to make mail in voting easier and more secure for everyone. I would think both parties would want to do that since both parties have constituents that would like to be able to vote by mail.

Possible way forward:  Other states have been using mail in voting for the general electorate for years and have no doubt worked out some of the kinks.  Could we not find one we like and  “copy and steal” the relevant sections from their election code to build a Texas version that would make mail in voting a secure option for all Texas voters?  Have we already done that?

3. Helping people vote: This bill has several rules about who can help voters and how they can help.  Most of them add some requirement that if you are helping (giving a ride, dropping off a mail in ballot, reading a ballot to someone) you have to fill out a form giving your name and address and promising that you did not do anything to change or influence how the person voted.  On the one hand, we definitely don’t want people at the polls attempting to influence how a voter will vote.  On the other hand, I expect to need a ride to the polls someday and possibly someone to help me read the ballot, I don’t have a lot of family around to help with that, and I don’t want any rule that makes it harder for me to get the help I need.  (Also, I had a definite knee jerk “none of your business” response to the idea that if someone gives me a ride to the poll they have to sign some kind of document.)

Possible way forward:  These requirements seem more annoying than helpful to me, but they are evidently important to someone.  The level of annoyance depends very much on how the various forms/paperwork are constructed.  If we could work out ways to make the forms easy and quick to complete– for example if someone could just swipe a driver’s license if they plan to give lots of people rides to the polls – then I don’t have any particular problem with them.  I think a possible way forward would be to show a system that incorporates the various suggested forms so that we can see that it is not going to overly complicate the process, and make necessary adjustments if it does. 

I guess my main point in all of this is to say that reasonable people can develop reasonable rules and processes for activities that are important to our lives.  We do it all the time.  We could do it for voting too.  We do not have to make it some big, chest-beating, all or nothing game.  But for some reason we – or more correctly the people we have elected – have chosen to do so.  I’m ready to start electing people who are more willing to work together.  I don’t know how we go about doing that.  Suggestions?

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