Big storms tend to bring out the Eagle Scout in all of us. Nature reminds us that we are not always in control of our access to basic necessities and our ability to move freely so we stock up and hunker down. When the storm passes, most of us end up a little better off. Now we know what our contingency plan is, we have canned goods and bottled water for the next storm, and we figure out what needs to be fixed around the house. You would think that the lessons most people learn from natural disasters would also inform our voting system, but sadly, they have not. If Sandy has taught us anything, it has been how weak our system is when it comes to overcoming disasters.
I informally polled my friends and family in New York about how they felt the storm was going to impact Election Day. Most were worried about how they would vote if power wasn’t restored, whether they could get to their polling places on time if the subway was still flooded, and where they would vote if normal polling places, like schools, were still being used as shelters. They were right to be worried as Election Day ended up a confusing mess for many New Yorkers. It led Rick Hasen to ask “How Many More Near-Election Disasters Before Congress Wakes Up?”
Hopefully, if New York learned anything from the election mess wrought by Sandy, it is that the best time to come up with Plan B is not at the moment Plan A falls through. Andrew Cuomo announced the night before the election that storm-affected New Yorkers could vote anywhere if they filled out an affidavit ballot. Unfortunately, the message did not get across to most of the electricity-lacking poll workers, who quickly ran out of affidavit ballots as they were swamped with unanticipated requests. Or, poll-workers turned away displaced voters as procedure called for just hours before, leaving determined citizens to wandering around the city in search of a place that would let them vote.
So what is the solution? State legislatures need to require the creation of contingency plans for what happens when Election Day can’t go on as planned. Just like Broadway understudies, they may never get to perform, but their role is more to strengthen the trust that the show can and will go on. Sandy has weakened the trust that New Yorkers have in the electoral system. Many did not get to vote even though they had the intent and the requisite paperwork. If New York already had a Plan B in place and had been able to inform their voters about it before the storm hit, then they would all feel comfortable right now in the hardiness of the system rather than feeling unfairly disenfranchised. Maybe we need to re-think every aspect of our voting mechanism so that casting a ballot is a simple and secure process.
My dream voting system would look something like this (after we finally transfer federal elections to the control of the federal government):
1. Every US citizen would be sent a voter registration form on their 18th birthday.
2. In return, they would be sent a voter identification card with a bar code that can tell a computer all of their voting information. You show this card and another form of ID (even a utility bill!) to get in to vote.
3. The federal government invests in creating a secure intranet for collecting voting information, carefully monitors it for hackers, and attaches penalties for disrupting the system.
4. We create a uniform touchscreen ballot program and urge states to adopt it for local elections. The program begins by scanning your barcode so that it knows which ballot to display. This is important, because in my fantasy world, you can vote anywhere. All of the machines run the same program, and your barcode tells it which precinct you are voting in, so it doesn’t matter which polling place you go to. You could give special iPads to mobile poll workers to visit the disabled and elderly. You could have voting kiosks in storm shelters and airports. I don’t understand why we need fifty-year-old punch card machines. I carry around a tiny computer in my pocket that I can use to deposit checks, read “Moby Dick” and play Angry Birds! Why can’t we do this?
5. We figure out how to do steps 3 and 4 by holding a competition where universities vie to come up with the best solutions. We do this instead of a bidding war among private companies because a cheap, buggy voting system is as good as a pile of money that has been set on fire. Also, university students are free labor.
6. We hire young, computer savvy college students to help run the voting machines. Or, we make it a part of high school curriculum so that teenagers gain exposure to the electoral system before they are a part of it. Also, again, free labor.
There are probably many complications that would arise in my fantasy voting world, but I’m sure that if we can figure out a way to put brilliant minds to work on this issue and to get legislators on board, we will not end up with another storm-ravaged city with a confused and disenfranchised electorate like we had in New York on Election Day.