Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Restoring Confidence in the Electoral Process

Senator Mark Obenshain

Whenever the issue of voter identification arises, so does a familiar rejoinder: "why do we need it"? As the patron of legislation creating a photo identification requirement in Virginia (SB 1256), I could talk about the importance of voter integrity—and it is vitally important—but there is a parallel concern, just as critical, that is often overlooked: citizen confidence in the election process.

That confidence has taken a beating in recent years. In 2000, a member of my own party, President George W. Bush was elected by a razor-thin margin in Florida, an election ultimately confirmed by multiple recounts but certified by the Supreme Court amidst significant controversy. Subsequent elections have been similarly contentious, with partisans on both sides expressing concern about the integrity of our election process, raising concerns about registration fraud, voter fraud, and reliance on electronic voting machines that lack a voter-verified paper trail.

Whether you think that fraud has been, or has the potential to be, a significant issue, this lack of faith in the election process ought to concern you. Our entire democratic process is predicated on a near-universal acceptance of election results as legitimate and expressive of the will of the people. If that confidence is waning—and it is—then we have a serious problem on our hands.

After the 2000 elections, a bipartisan commission was formed, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III to study ways to build confidence in U.S. elections. They looked at voting technology, voter access, registration and identification issues, election administration and more, and made a variety of recommendations that states have sought to implement—photo identification requirements among them.

Here in Virginia, we've taken voter confidence seriously. We're phasing out electronic balloting in favor of voting methods that include a paper trail, we've worked to create greater uniformity in election deadlines and to streamline overseas absentee balloting, and now we're addressing legitimate concerns about the lack of safeguards at the polls themselves.

I would call your attention to two disturbing incidents this past election cycle that seriously hurt voter confidence. The first happened practically in my own backyard, when a Republican contractor tossed eight voter registration forms in a dumpster in Harrisonburg. There was, justifiably, outrage, and many demanded a state investigation in addition to the local one, asserting that even if local law enforcement was more than up to the task, statewide voter confidence was at stake. They were right.

Another incident took place in Northern Virginia, where a Democratic campaign operative was caught on tape ruminating about ways to commit election fraud. Again, outrage—and again, entirely justified.

Free and fair elections are one of the defining features of our system of government, and it's worth the effort to keep them that way, and to give voters confidence in our election process.

Senate Bill 1256 is a common sense approach that flows out of the recommendations of the bipartisan Carter-Baker Commission, requiring that voters show a photo ID to vote, and providing a photo ID free of charge to anyone who needs it through their local registrar's office.

We've had twelve years of significant segments of our population believing, when their candidate lost, that the election might have been stolen, and we have an election process in place that offers them too little assurance that such fraud couldn't happen.  It's time we took the advice of Jimmy Carter and James Baker and restored confidence to our election process.