Campaigning for trust in the voting system
Washington’s 2004 gubernatorial race, which involved a recount, the Supreme Court and technical errors, is just one example of last year’s election debacles. This time around, with skepticism about the integrity of American elections running high, officials at all levels of government face calls for sweeping reforms designed to boost voter confidence.
Several state and local governments have responded in recent months by offering a variety of reforms. Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell, for example, aims to reduce the political influence of wealthy special interests by creating a system of public financing for state elections. The Takoma Park, Md., City Council recently passed a provision allowing for instant runoff voting in close contests, which proponents say saves taxpayer money, reduces negative campaigning, gives voters a wider range of choices and eliminates the “spoiler factor” associated with third-party candidates.
Also, election officials in Georgia are laying the groundwork for paper trail requirements for electronic voting machines statewide, according to Elections Division Director Kathy Rogers. Ideally, the system will be in place in two years when federal standards on Voter-Verifiable Paper Audit Trail systems go into effect.
Resident-driven petition drives in Florida, Ohio and California, meanwhile, would yank the power to redraw legislative districts away from lawmakers, says Gary Calman, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), a Washington-based advocacy group.
The flurry of state and local proposals contrasts with the federal government’s relative inertia on election-related issues, Calman says. Although the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was supposed to help states solve election problems highlighted by the deadlocked 2000 presidential election, Congress has yet to fully fund the act. According to the Washington-based U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a federal resource established by HAVA, Congress has withheld a total of $800 million out of a total $3.8 billion in HAVA-authorized funds. Georgia, for example, is still owed $14.6 million, which could go toward the estimated $16 million cost of upgrading voting machines.
Similarly, some 87 recommendations recently issued by the bipartisan, 21-member Commission on Federal Election Reform “made a dull thud in Congress,” says Ryan O’Donnell, communications director for Takoma Park, Md.-based FairVote, an election reform advocacy group.
At least in the near term, state and local officials likely will not see any new federal legislation sparked by the commission. Still, recommendations from the panel — headed by 39th President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker III — will serve as guidelines for officials dealing with election reform, says Daniel Calingaert, the commission’s associate director.
Some of the proposals have earned praise from election-reform advocates. FairVote and U.S. PIRG lauded the commission’s call for a universal voter registration system in which states — rather than local jurisdictions — are responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter lists.
Other suggestions, however, have met with a chorus of boos. Calman says he finds the recommendation that all voters be forced to show identification at the polls “very troubling” because it could reduce voter turnout, particularly among the poor. And Bev Harris, founder of the Reston, Wash.-based advocacy group Black Box voting says the commission refused to study security flaws in widely used voting technology.
The mixed reaction points to the challenges facing state and local officials as election reform continues. But it is still worth doing, Calingaert says. “If you look at the polls, about a third of Americans are not persuaded that their votes are counted accurately,” he says. “We need a process that not only works well but gives people confidence, so that at the end of the day whoever loses an election can say, ‘I lost,’ not, ‘I got cheated.’”
Joel Groover is an Atlanta-based freelance writer.