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Guest Commentary: At the core of democracy, a fragile voting system

You would think that after more than two centuries of practice, we'd know all about running accurate and efficient elections.

Voting, after all, is our great shared ritual; it cuts across everything - region, ideology, religion, class, race - that can divide our nation. Registering to vote should be convenient and voting itself should be efficient and pleasant, with machines operating properly, registration lists accurate and current, fraud minimized and disputes handled fairly.

Citizens should see their votes as both a right and a privilege and be proud they are citizens in a democracy.

Yet as the November elections approach, the systems by which they're run seem more beleaguered and fragile than ever. Recently, the Pew Center on the States found that about 51 million eligible citizens aren't registered at all and roughly one in eight voter registrations in the U.S. - that's 24 million - are either no longer valid or are inaccurate.

Voter fraud is no joke. The integrity of the ballot is critical in a democracy.

But treating fraud seriously and giving legitimate voters access to the ballot are equally important.

Much of the debate today on election laws centers around whether voters should be required to show photo identification at the polls. Requiring voters to identify themselves with a photo ID is a safeguard that helps build confidence in the system. But it has to be accompanied by an aggressive effort to reach qualified voters.

Improving elections will be neither easy nor inexpensive. States need to make elections administration a top priority - updating systems and eliminating errors, doing more to register citizens, making voting convenient and promoting information on registration and the voting process before the election.

Surely it's worth it. The legitimacy of our system of voting in this country is strengthened by increased access of citizens and their confidence that their votes are counted accurately and securely.

Elections are contests over power. Ensuring that Americans have no reason to doubt the results is vital to our system's health.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives.