Bringing Election Day into the Futurer

Who could forget last year’s Daily Show interview, when North Carolina Precinct Chairman Don Yelton shocked America with his jarring defense of North Carolina’s voter identification law: “If it hurts a bunch of college kids that’s too lazy to get up off their ‘bohunkas’ and go get a photo ID, so be it … If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks … so be it.”

It is now 2014, and voter disenfranchisement should be a thing of the past. Yet, there seem to be few left who will defend voting rights for us “bohunka”-sitting students and “lazy blacks.”

Will the future of voting rights be so bleak? Perhaps not.

Enter the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA). The commission — a bi-partisan task force of seasoned elections administrators, corporate professionals, and one Walt Disney World executive — was formed after President Obama called for voting reforms in his 2013 State of the Union Address.

On January 22nd, the PCEA released a report highlighting new technologies and best practices for reforming the voting process on Election Day. The report is a refreshing development after recent legislation and court action threatened to roll back decades of progress on the voting rights front.

Back in 2012, voters across the country were forced to endure long lines and hurdle frustrating bureaucratic obstacles in order to vote on Election Day. These lines were largely due to superfluous legislation that, despite an attempt to eliminate “voter fraud,” served more as a frustrating obstacle for youth and minority voters.

To make matters worse, the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that protected citizens in districts with records of voter disenfranchisement. Since then, a number of states have moved forward with new restrictive legislation. Texas and North Carolina made headlines in 2013 for enforcing Voter ID laws. Kansas and Arizona have both passed laws requiring proof of citizenship for state and local elections, in effect establishing a two-tiered system that disenfranchises those without easy access to a birth certificate or social security card.

The PCEA’s report came after six months of research and public hearings. The report, among other key recommendations, emphasizes Online Voter Registration (OVR) – much to the delight of activist groups like Rock the Vote. Online registration facilitates the registration process by making registration more accessible to young people and minorities. It is an approach that Rock the Vote and other organizations have been working to advance for the last decade.

Online voter registration represents a huge step forward for the U.S. voting system. Although 19 states have already adopted OVR platforms, citizens in a majority of states still have to register using paper forms. As it stands, residents of these states must print their registration form, sign it, and mail it to their Secretary of State’s office. The process is burdensome, time-consuming, and stands in stark contrast to America’s many great technological innovations. In a country that birthed Facebook, the iPhone, and THE INTERNET, why are we still registering to vote on paper forms?

The process seems almost anachronistic. Imagine if, instead of printing and mailing a paper form, you could register through an application on your smartphone. Log on, fill in your information, submit, bingo. Voter registration made easy.

With the PCEA’s recommendation this month, this vision may be closer than we once thought. Already, states have responded positively to the report. Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, for example, called online voter registration a “common-sense improvement” and urged state legislators to adopt new reforms.

So what next? As exciting as this development is, the PCEA report has no legislative authority. Both President Obama’s stamp of approval and the credibility of the bi-partisan commission put significant weight behind the PCEA’s recommendations, but without action at the state and local levels, it will go nowhere. It’s up to us to make sure our elections officials adopt these new recommendations and take action to bring Election Day into the future.

About the author: Austin Estes has been at Rock the Vote since September 2013, working as the Manager of Online Engagement. He grew up in Central Florida and studied Psychology at Florida Atlantic University before moving to California to work with the human rights organization Invisible Children. When he’s not registering young voters or tweeting about Miley Cyrus, he spends his time at American University studying public policy.