Capitol Ideas Sept/Oct 2014

by David Carroll

Over the last 25 years, the Carter Center has observed nearly 100 elections in 38 countries around the world. These experiences have generated a wealth of information about electoral practices across the globe, and an interesting basis to compare how elections are conducted in the U.S. A quick review suggests that while elections in the U.S. are generally of high quality and enjoy broad public confidence, the U.S. compares unfavorably with other democracies in a number of areas and/or fall short of widely recognized international benchmarks.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 ruled portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act related to voter IDs were outdated and unconstitutional, states took action. But laws in several states that have imposed strict new photo identification requirements for voters are in limbo, with courts questioning whether concerns over voter fraud outweigh individuals exercising their right to vote.

By Liam Julian. Felony disenfranchisement laws have a long history in the United States. They first appeared in the colonies in the 1600s as “civil deaths”—vague punishments born from common law, often involving the loss of voting rights and usually meted out for “morality crimes” like drunkenness. These coarse sanctions evolved, though, and between 1776 and 1821, 11 U.S. states codified specific laws limiting voting rights for people convicted of certain crimes. By 1868, when the 14th Amendment, which addresses voting rights, was ratified, 29 of 37 American states specifically withheld the vote from people convicted of felonies.

By John G. Matsusaka

Direct citizen participation in the lawmaking process is sometimes believed to be a modern invention that has only recently been grafted onto the “real”—representative— democracy of the country. The idea of citizen lawmaking, however, goes back to New England town meetings in the 18th century, and Massachusetts held a referendum to its constitution as early as 1780.

Colorado election officials were regularly seeing 70, sometimes 80, percent of voters casting their ballots by mail. That’s because the state offered the ability to vote as a permanent absentee. To do so, however, voters had to apply for permanent absentee status. That changed with a 2013 law that standardized the vote-by-mail process. Now, everyone in the state receives a ballot by mail that they can cast by either mailing it back or taking it to a voter service center.

Colorado is among several states in recent years to pass laws improving the election system and increasing voting access.