Ky. Voices: Non-partisan goal: Ensure that all voters have access to the polls


Election Day is upon us, and with it the end (one hopes) of a long and drawn-out process for our country. Our politics have become bitter, heated and tinged with partisanship at every turn. Debates are filled with biting rhetoric. Negative and demoralizing campaign ads abound.

But that does not have to be so. Is there a way we can conduct our elections with compromise and consensus in mind?

Hurricane Sandy, occurring just a week before Election Day, may actually offer a glimmer of hope.

Our country comes together in the wake of national tragedies. The country found unity in handling the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. After the horrific shooting at a public event in Tucson, Ariz., involving Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, members of Congress sat with their political opponents at the State of the Union Address to provide a public display of bipartisanship.

And in the past week, Republicans have praised President Barack Obama's response to the hurricane and Democrats have embraced Republican governors in hard-hit states to offer support.

Political opponents cooperated because there was a universal goal: coming together to provide assistance to those in need and move forward as a country. Perhaps this feeling of national unity can spill over into our elections.

For that to occur, we need to reach consensus on how to run our elections, much like we have reached consensus after a major disaster. Certainly, there are universal principles regarding our democratic processes that everyone can agree on.

For example, it should not be controversial that our system must allow every eligible citizen easy access to vote while also ensuring that ineligible voters cannot cast ballots.

Debates over issues such as voter ID, therefore, should start with that underlying premise. The question then is whether — based on facts, not rhetoric — a particular identification requirement hinders any eligible person from voting, or if the lack of an identification requirement opens the door for ineligible voters.

Our civil discourse devolves when the debate becomes about political motives, such as the popular sentiment that Republicans support and Democrats oppose voter-ID requirements solely because of the effects of the laws on voters who tend to skew Democratic.

If the debate is instead about how best to run our democracy, then maybe we can reach consensus about the proper kinds of measures to implement for a smooth election. (As a side note, Kentucky's voter ID requirement allows voters to show various forms of identification. I usually take advantage of the part of the law that permits voters to show a credit card as a proper identification.)

Most political observers recognize our neighbor to the north, Ohio, as the main battleground state in the presidential election. That state has already seen a swath of litigation about running this year's election — including disputes over early voting and provisional balloting, among others.

Of course, the reason that the campaigns have involved the courts is that the election in Ohio will be extremely close, meaning that each side is going to fight for every last vote. But these lawsuits were infused with partisanship. Perhaps that is inevitable in such a close race.

A better approach, however, would be if the public demanded that candidates and political parties view every election dispute through the lens of the universal principle discussed above: that we should run our elections so that every eligible citizen has easy access to the polls.

The debate about early voting in Ohio, for example, pitted the Obama campaign against Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, largely based on the Obama camp's belief that more Democratic voters wold take advantage of early voting on the last weekend before the election.

With the stakes so high, the rhetoric turned ideological. Lost in the debate, however, was whether — as a factual matter — the rules we implement, including early voting, actually foster the universal goal of easy access for all eligible voters while at the same time protecting the electoral process.

A close election might bring recounts and legal challenges. Indeed, we might be heading that way in the 6th Congressional District race between Ben Chandler and Andy Barr. That campaign, too, has become overly heated, with each side slinging mud at the other.

If we find ourselves in post-election litigation, however, the public should demand bipartisanship, compromise and consensus. If a national tragedy can bring us together, why can't a national triumph: the blessing of a regular election cycle in which substantive ideas and passionate, but respectful, debate leads to the peaceful choosing of our leaders?