Election Reform can Improve Ballot Access While Preventing Fraud | Opinion

Three of the last six presidential elections left a substantial fraction of the public doubting whether the victor had actually won. The 2000 vote-counting spectacle in Florida convinced many Democrats that President George W. Bush had stolen the election. After the 2016 election many were persuaded that Donald Trump had won the contest with help from Vladimir Putin.

The 2020 election was singular in terms of the controversies it generated, culminating in the awful events of January 6. The coronavirus pandemic spawned a swarm of exceptional election procedures, such as "no-fault" absentee ballots, the use by some states of mail-in ballots as the default voting method, reduced voter verification standards and very loose proxy voting rules. Mailed ballots can be delivered to the wrong address, or not forwarded, or intercepted. Proxies can behave opportunistically, filling in blank ballots and disposing of those they don't like—also known as "ballot harvesting." See Kim Strassel in The Wall Street Journal for more of the grisly details.

Skepticism about mailed ballots, whether "absentee" or otherwise, is neither new (a 2004 bipartisan commission, headed by Jimmy Carter and former Republican secretary of state James Baker, found that mail ballots are "the largest source of potential voter fraud.") nor restricted to the United States (France has banned all types of vote by mail since 1975). Most countries have restricted their use, and ballot harvesting seems to be a uniquely U.S. phenomenon.

Reactive enforcement is ill suited to address the problem. Establishing election fraud beyond a reasonable doubt requires evidence, which is difficult to collect and adjudicate during the narrow window between election day and the certification of results, while the penalties for committing fraud are mild and rarely imposed. Courts are understandably reluctant to overturn an election even on the basis of glaring statistical irregularities. As a result, impunity ignites more fraud, or creates a perception of it—and either one discredits the electoral process, with disastrous effects on our democracy. We saw on January 6 how destabilizing this can be, how quickly matters can turn toxic and dangerous. The slow but steady progression from the frustrating electoral traffic jam of the 2000 election to the grotesque invasion of the Capitol in 2021 augurs poorly for what comes next if we don't address the problem.

In the wake of the 2000 election fiasco there was a great deal of talk about reforming the mechanics of voting, so that elections would be less vulnerable to fraud. Would that the talk had borne fruit! Instead, some studies were conducted, some good advice was dispensed and the country went back to sleep. Right after the 2000 election, for example, a CalTech-MIT project concluded that paper ballots were best because they allowed for the most reliable and transparent recounting in cases of doubt. A few jurisdictions adopted the recommendation, but most have not. Today, leaving aside the rushed, exceptional changes made this year because of the pandemic, our patchwork of locally controlled voting systems remain little improved from twenty years ago.

But while defective election systems can have disastrous results, fixing them is not beyond our reach.

The problems with our present system divide, broadly, into concerns about access and concerns about fraud. While measures to combat one of these problems often exacerbate the other, a great deal of progress could be made to address both.

Ballot access is difficult, especially for people working multiple jobs and on unpredictable schedules, as well as for those who rely on public transportation. Access problems are made worse by inefficient systems that sometimes purge valid voters from the rolls. Moreover, the provision of polling places is uneven, leading to long lines and difficult access in municipalities that crowd their citizens into a small number of voting sites. Some states have moved toward same-day registration, so that people can show up at the polls, register and cast provisional ballots. Some states, such as Oregon, have adopted mail-in voting, though one must still register to get on the voter rolls in the first place. Both of these measures to increase access also expand the possibilities for fraud.

We propose the following two reforms to help increase ballot access:

(1) Make election day a mandatory holiday. Moving it to Sunday wouldn't be enough, because so many people work in retail and food service. If adding another holiday seems excessive, we're confident Washington and Lincoln would be delighted to see President's Day repurposed for such a good cause.

(2) Make polling places accessible. Open new polling places in urban areas (along mass transit lines with extra buses and trains on election day, in apartment lobbies, etc.) and in remote rural areas (stores, churches). Some of this is already being done, but much more is needed, and there should be many more polling places than at present.

Voter leaves polling station Georgia runoffs
A voter leaves a polling station at the Zion Baptist Church on January 5, 2021, in Marietta, Georgia. After an unprecedented campaign that mobilized President Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden, the people of Georgia started voting Tuesday in two U.S. Senate runoffs that could shape the first years of the new Democratic presidency. Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty Images

Here are two measures to prevent fraud:

(3) Issue everyone a voter ID when they register. The ID would work like a credit card; present it and you could vote at any polling station, anywhere in the country, using a paper ballot that gets a unique ID number and goes back to the relevant district to be counted (the authorities could even transmit a copy of the ballot electronically to allow an initial count, but it would wind up back in your precinct to be counted officially by hand). Once you've voted, the system knows you've cast a ballot so you can't vote again. Credit card companies manage something very much like this—you can spend practically everywhere and you can't go over your limit anywhere. Most democratic countries require a photo identity card as proof of voter's identity. A fully modern version would enable voters to cast ballots more easily.

(4) Abolish absentee and mail-in voting. Voters will have access to polling stations beyond their precinct and even out of state (with the "credit card" you can vote while attending a conference in Chicago even if you live in New Jersey), and at U.S. embassies overseas or military bases (again with the "credit card" this shouldn't be an insurmountable problem). That way there is always an official chain of custody for the ballot. Eventually the ID card system could be replaced with anthropometric ID, (e.g. iris scans).

Finally, here are two more suggestions meant to reduce various forms of information manipulation before an election.

(5) Shorten the early voting period. Reduce early voting to no more than three days before election day, to include the weekend, such that all voters have roughly the same information when they vote.

(6) Abolish proxy voting. Given the voter ID that allows one to vote anywhere in the country and at embassies or military bases abroad, there would be no need for proxies. As for the infirm, we should designate voting officials to visit severely handicapped people, who register in advance, in their homes or residential care facilities, just as census takers now visit people at home. Safeguards can be put in place, such as allowing partisan observers to accompany the vote taker.

Measures (3), (4) and (6) would also likely improve ballot access as people could avoid lines and hard-to-access polling places in their own precinct if it was more convenient to vote where they work or shop for groceries.

Our proposed reforms would not be costless. Establishing polling places, slating an election day holiday, adding mass transit resources the day of the poll and, especially, setting up an electronic voter ID using credit card technology will be prohibitively expensive for local precincts and states.

The benefits of living in a democracy are shared at the national level, and the costs of maintaining the integrity of our democracy should be borne at the national level as well. The costs of implementing all of these reforms—which must come simultaneously if they are to be effective—would be infinitesimal compared with what we pay to stave off external threats to our system of government—and the benefits would be similarly priceless. Just consider how many young men have been drafted and sent to fight abroad in defense of our democracy. Is trust in the way we choose our political leader worth any less?

In the early republic the Founders put "We the People" at the highest position in the system, with every governing institution depending either directly or indirectly on voters for its authority. We fly the president around in Air Force One, the judges and members of Congress get perquisites and protection, all very expensive. Surely we can find resources to consult accurately the intentions of We the People.

Sergiu Klainerman is Higgins Professor of Mathematics at Princeton University. John Londregan is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.