Voting reform is one of America's biggest challenges

Before you go, we thought you'd like these...
Obama Pushes for Voting Reforms

It is easy to forget perhaps how radical an idea America's democracy was in the 18th century. Oligarchical elites controlled governments and people, and authority was derived from the "divine right of kings." Our Founding Fathers had to replace that authority with a new one, writing in the Declaration of Independence that governments would derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed."

SEE ALSO: Republicans Cruz, Kasich reach 'stop-Trump' deal

Through the lens of today, this simple phrase is profound and powerful. The clear implication is that our Founders believed that it was only through the process of achieving consent could a government be just; and that governments without consent would struggle to be just (or effective, popular, etc). In a year in which there has been so much talk of corruption and rigged political systems, this idea – whether part of the problem we face today in America is that the system is no longer capable of conveying consent – is something I think worth exploring.

Consider this:

  • Only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. The leading candidate for president in 2016 has a 32 percent approval rating. 75 percent of Americans now believe government corruption is widespread. In a 2014 poll, only 19 percent of Americans said their government currently had "the consent of the governed."
  • Two thirds of Americans are eligible to vote; two thirds of eligible voters and 44 percent of all Americans are registered to vote; 86 percent of registered voters voted in 2012 (126m); 51 percent of voters in 2012 voted for Barack Obama. This means that only 30 percent of all eligible voters voted for the winning candidate for president in 2012, and only 20 percent of all Americans. Fully 70 percent of all eligible voters in the United States did not cast a vote for the winning presidential candidate in 2012. In 2014, 64% of all eligible voters did not cast a ballot for either the Senate or House.
  • In 2012, 17 percent of registered voters cast ballots for president in a contested state. 4 percent cast ballots in a contested race for the House. 2 percent cast ballots in a contested Senate race. Taken together, this means that at least 85 percent of all eligible voters in the 2012 election either did not or could not cast a vote that would help determine their representation in Washington.

RELATED: See photos from history of civil rights activists marching for voting rights

34 PHOTOS
Voting Rights Act marches 1960s and 50th anniversary with Obama
See Gallery
Voting reform is one of America's biggest challenges
FILE - In this March 21, 1965 file photo, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his civil rights marchers cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., heading for capitol, Montgomery, during a five day, 50 mile walk to protest voting laws. The Edmund Pettus Bridge gained instant immortality as a civil rights landmark when white police beat demonstrators marching for black voting rights 50 years ago this week in Selma, Alabama. Whatâs less known is that the bridge is named for a reputed leader of the early Ku Klux Klan. Now, a student group wants to rename the bridge that will be the backdrop when President Barack Obama visits Selma on Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/File)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Bobby Simmons, an African-American young man with 'VOTE' on forehead painted with zinc oxide sun tan lotion during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: Speakers platform - 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Alabama Civil Rights March Front row, left: Author James Baldwin, Front row, 2nd from left, Selma March strategist, Bayard Rustin,Front row, 3rd from left (with hat), A. Philip Randolph (founder of both the March on Washington Movement and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters) - On March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
Tear gas fumes fill the air as state troopers, ordered by Gov. George Wallace, break up a demonstration march in Selma, Ala., on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. As several hundred marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin their protest march to Montgomery, state troopers violently assaulted the crowd with clubs and whips. A shocked nation watched the police brutality on television and demanded that Washington intervene and protect voter registration rights for blacks. (AP Photo)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 14: Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., stands on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in between television interviews on Feb. 14, 2015. Rep. Lewis was beaten by police on the bridge on 'Bloody Sunday' 50 years ago on March 7, 1965, during an attempted march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
MONTGOMERY, AL - MARCH 25: At the head of the march, nuns, priests and civil rights leaders leave from the City of St. Jude school grounds (L-R Rev. Dominic T. 'Dom' Orsini, priest with eye patch (half view), Rev. Arthur Matott, John Lewis (head of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), Andrew Young, Sister Mary Leoline and Dr. Theodore Gill) on March 25, 1965 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Photo by Stephen F. Somerstein/Getty Images)
Civil rights demonstrators, led by Dr Martin Luther King (5th R), civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy (5th L), John Lewis (3rd L) and other civil and religious leaders, make their way from Selma to Montgomery on March 22, 1965 in Alabama, on the third leg of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks and represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement. The first march took place on March 07, 1965 ('Bloody Sunday') when 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by state and local police. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
View of American religious and Civil Rights leaders John Lewis (in vest) and Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968) and his wife, Coretta Scott King (1927 - 2006), on the podium before the Selma to Montogomery March rally on the steps on the Alabama State Capitol, Montgomery, Alabama, March 25, 1965. Also visible is union leader A Philip Randolph (1889 - 1979) (seated at left). The Confederate and Alabama flags fly over the Capitol. (Photo by Charles Shaw/Getty Images)
State troopers swing billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala., March 7, 1965. John Lewis, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (in the foreground) is being beaten by a state trooper. Lewis, a future U.S. Congressman sustained a fractured skull. (AP Photo)
Hosea Williams, left, who led a march in Selma, Ala., leaves the scene as state troopers break up the demonstration on what is known as Bloody Sunday on March 7, 1965. Behind him, at right, John Lewis of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee is put on the ground by a trooper. Lewis suffered a possible skull fracture. Supporters of black voting rights organized a march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the killing of a demonstrator by a state trooper and to improve voter registration for blacks, who are discouraged to register. (AP Photo)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (R), one of the original marchers, the Reverend Al Sharpton (2nd R), First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama (7L), First Lady Michelle Obama (5L), former US President George W. Bush (5R), Laura Bush (6R), and US Representative John Lewis (6L), Democrat of Georgia and one of the original marchers, lead a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama walks alongside Amelia Boynton Robinson (2nd-R), one of the original marchers, First Lady Michelle Obama (L), and US Representative John Lewis (2nd-L), Democrat of Georgia, and also one of the original marchers, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The event commemorates Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans, clashed with police on the bridge. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Malia Obama, left, and sister Sasha Obama laugh together as they leave a speech by their father President Barack Obama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks by the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., Saturday, March 7, 2015, for the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement. This weekend marks the anniversary of "Bloody Sunday,' a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
President Barack Obama speaks near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday," a landmark event of the civil rights movement, Saturday, March 7, 2015.(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
US President Barack Obama hugs US Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, one of the original marchers at Selma, during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 2015. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
People listen during take photos at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama marked the 50th anniversary of the Selma civil rights march on Saturday by condemning new attempts to restrict voting rights and demanding their protection be renewed. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A large group including US President Barack Obama cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama declared Saturday on the 50th anniversary of a savagely repressed civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, that it was a global inspiration for those fighting for freedom. 'From the streets of Tunis to the Maidan in Ukraine, this generation of young people can draw strength from this place, where the powerless could change the world's greatest superpower, and push their leaders to expand the boundaries of freedom,' he said. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: (L-R) Former first lady Laura Bush, first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. president Barack Obama, U.S. Rep John Lewis (D-GA) and former U.S. president George W. Bush pray during a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the historic civil rights march on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks to supporters before President Barack Obama and others take a symbolic walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Saturday, March 7, 2015, in Selma, Ala. This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of "Bloody Sunday,' a civil rights march in which protestors were beaten, trampled and tear-gassed by police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, in Selma. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
The motorcade of US President Barack Obama arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Obama and the first family are in Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet wellwishers after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Sasha Obama (L), Malia Obama (2nd L), and their grandmother, Marian Robinson (C), walk away from US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama after arriving on Air Force One at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
SELMA, AL - MARCH 07: People wait to hear U.S. president Barack Obama speak in front of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. Selma is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the famed civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery that resulted in a violent confrontation with Selma police and State Troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama gets out of an SUV as he walks to board Air Force One prior to departing from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, March 7, 2015. The First Family is traveling to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US President George W. Bush arrives at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of US Secret Service's Counter Assault Team walks on the North lawn of the White House in Washington, DC before US President Barack Obama departure to Selma, Alabama on March 7, 2015. The US Secret Service locked down the White House press room Saturday after a loud noise was heard as reporters gathered to await Obama's departure for Selma, Alabama, a pool report said. The Washington fire department reported a fire at a food cart near the White House and that its units had extinguished it. It was unclear if the fire was the source of the noise. AFP PHOTO/YURI GRIPAS (Photo credit should read YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Police officers block Broad Street near the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. US President Barack Obama and the first family will visit Selma to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers attempting to walk to the Alabama capital of Montgomery to end voting discrimination against African Americans clashed with police. AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Edmund Pettus Bridge is seen during sunset on March 6, 2015 in Selma, Alabama. The march from Selma to Montgomery, which US President Barack Obama will commemorate Saturday in the southern state of Alabama, was part of the plight to end voting discrimination against African Americans a half century ago. Obama will deliver remarks at Selma's famed Edmund Pettus Bridge, where some 600 peaceful voting rights activists were attacked as they marched on March 7, 1965, a day which became known as 'Bloody Sunday.' AFP PHOTO/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama (L) look on during an event marking the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. US President Barack Obama rallied a new generation of Americans to the spirit of the civil rights struggle, warning their march for freedom 'is not yet finished.' In a forceful speech in Selma, Alabama on the 50th anniversary of the brutal repression of a peaceful protest, America's first black president denounced new attempts to restrict voting rights. AFP PHOTO/ SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE
SHOW CAPTION +
HIDE CAPTION

Or consider this week's Democratic primary in New York. Only 35 percent of registered Democrats turned out. Assuming that a third of the 3 million registered independents in New York consider themselves Democrats (it could be much higher), only 29 percent of self-identified or registered Democrats voted on Tuesday. Hillary Clinton won 58 percent of that 29 percent, or 16 percent of all Democrats in New York. This means that 84 percent of all registered New York Democrats did not cast a vote for Hillary Clinton.

Given all this, it is reasonable to ask whether the conditions in our country and our political system as currently designed are leaving our leaders in Washington without the level of consent required to govern effectively, or justly. After more than 25 years in national politics, my own take is that re-establishing a higher degree of true consent should be a central goal of those wanting to address the discontent so evident in our body politic today.

So what can we do? Many things, but I will start three related to making it easier for people to vote, and for their vote to be more meaningful:

Remove barriers to participation. At a design level, our current election system discourages participation. In many states, at the time of maximum interest in an election – the weeks before Election Day – remains the only time you cannot register to vote. The entire registration system is both anti-democratic, and archaic, designed for an age when registrars needed weeks to receive registration changes in the mail to produce hard copy voter rolls for elections. We are in a different time now, and making registration automatic, moving to same day registration and on-line registration systems, adopting no-excuse absentee ballots or universal vote by mail, eliminating caucuses, committing to no longer than 30 minute waits to vote, mandating 14 hour election day opening times and one week of early voting (states can do more) should become the norm of a better, more modern and more user-friendly American electoral system.

30 percent of eligible voters voted for the winning presidential candidate in 2012. Perhaps our goal should be to get that number up to 50 percent in the years ahead.

Deeper structural reforms should be considered. Reforms like eliminating the Electoral College, adopting non-partisan redistricting, docking the pay of members of Congress for every day the budget is late, and addressing what has become a pernicious small state bias in the construction of our Congress should be considered and debated.

Modernizing the machinery of elections. Despite the hard work of well intentioned election officials across the country, the machinery of our elections uses expensive, antiquated 20th century technology. The inefficiency and ineffectiveness of these systems not only discourage innovation and modernization (like same day voting), but their cost means fewer machines and polling locations – meaning longer wait times and other inconveniences that discourage participation.

The good news is that more than 40 of the 50 states will be updating their voting machinery and backend before the 2020 election. It is critical that the states demand and test more modern technology that can scale as turnout increases, cost less so as to provide greater ease of Election Day voting, and have modern data capacities to allow for "real time voter books" or much needed advances in identification/authentication for voters themselves.

Far too many Americans have lost faith in their government's ability to act on their behalf. Unchecked, over time, this sentiment will weaken our democracy and our nation. Arguably, it already has.

Our leaders, particularly younger ones, should see this broad discontent as one of America's greatest challenges, and work hard to address it as we would more traditional foreign or domestic policy challenges. A central path to re-establishing trust is to re-imagine and build a modern electoral system in the U.S. that can begin to restore a more persuasive sense of consent by the American people in their leaders. This issue is not a partisan one, but an American one, and it needs to be addressed with the kind of vigor and determination we've seen so many times in our proud history.

Read Full Story

People are Reading