Democrats in both the House and Senate have wasted no time in introducing bills to improve the process of voting in America, after some in Florida were forced by long lines to wait until 1:30 in the morning to vote. While these both are admirable in the goals they aim to achieve, I've got a crazier idea as to how to fix the problem than dangling federal grants in front of the states, in an effort to persuade them to modernize their voting laws and procedures -- change the presidential primary schedule so that the states with the highest percentage of voter participation in the previous election go first.
Instead of passing a law which would, in essence, bribe the states (in the same fashion as "Race To The Top" in education) to get their act together when it comes to voting, give them a positive goal to shoot for and let them figure out on their own how to turn their citizens out to vote better.
Here's how my idea would work. The hard part (the crazy part) is that Congress would have to pass a law dictating to the states when they would be allowed to hold their primaries -- which has never been done. The primaries would be "nationalized" to a certain degree. Right there, that's enough to sink my plan, I realize. But hey, it's Thursday, so I'm going to continue this flight of fancy to the end (just to fill up column space, as it were).
So, ignoring the problems of getting the scheme passed into law, the primary calendar as we know it now would be completely reorganized. We'd divide it into five segments, the first taking place in February or earlier. No exceptions for Iowa and New Hampshire, either. The only states who would be allowed to schedule their primaries earlier than March would be the ten who achieved the highest rate of voter participation in the previous presidential election. Perhaps the first four or five could be singled out and put into line (the way Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina currently are singled out). Top state in previous voter participation rate votes first. The second ten states would get to vote in March, the third in April, down the line until the lowest ten voter-participation states voted in June.
Not only would this impose some much-needed rationality and pacing to the primary season, it would also serve as an incentive for states to do better. Currently, they have no incentive to do so. Now, it might be argued that this wouldn't work, because some states are just bound to have populations who don't want to vote, while others are more proud of their citizenly duties. But a state will never know if it just has a lazy electorate or not until they institute reforms which make it easier for people to vote.
One of the top states for voter turnout is, unsurprisingly, a state which makes it easier to vote than just about any other -- Oregon, where all voting is done by mail-in ballot. Everybody "absentee" votes, to put it in terms other states use. Oh, sure, you can drop your ballot off on Election Day in person (if you're a traditionalist), but you still get your ballot in the mail early enough to fill it out and just mail it back, to save time. Once Oregon has the first-in-the-nation primary for a few election cycles, other states will examine the Oregon method and adopt it for their own.
There's no guarantee it'd be Oregon who went first, however. Perhaps it would be one of the other states in the top ranks of voter turnout. Rather than letting Iowa go first, how about letting South Dakota or Minnesota or Wisconsin go first next time around? Instead of New Hampshire, perhaps Alaska or Maine?
Being at the front of the line -- or even near the front of the line -- would bestow not just bragging rights for the states, but actual economic benefit. Talk to a hotel owner or newspaper publisher in New Hampshire or Iowa about what their premium spot means every four years. You can bet that hotel owners and media magnates in other states would vie for those dollars.
Similarly, being at the end of the line would be a shameful spot for any state. Not only would they never see the campaign organizations, their vote would most likely not even matter in the primary race (not every year is Hillary-versus-Barack).
Perhaps if America faced the primary season every four years with a crystal clear layout of which states participate in our democracy more than others, it would give enough motivation to whichever political party holds the state government to improve their access and ease of registering and voting. If states competed to see which one could come up with the best plan for voter turnout, the overall situation would be bound to improve over time.
I realize this is more of a thought experiment than a piece of legislation which has a chance to pass. I do fully support the efforts of Senator Chris Coons and Representative George Miller (Miller's bill has the best acro-name, I have to admit: "Streamlining and Improving Methods at Polling Locations and Early Voting Act" or the "SIMPLE Voting Act"). At this point, anything that could improve the situation in places like Florida has my support, because it's obvious that things have to change for the better somehow.
People fought and died for my right to vote. People fought for every single group of citizens who now enjoys the franchise -- often at different times and against different prejudices. If you don't count the Bill of Rights, out of the seventeen amendments to the Constitution, a full seven of them deal with voting and three more deal with elections -- far more than any other subject. That's how important voting is to Americans. Here in the twenty-first century, with all of the technology now at our disposal, voting should be as easy as possible. It isn't. And, one way or another, it needs fixing -- sooner rather than later.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant