Neighborly Advice: Time Running Out for Election Reform

Posted August 29, 2003 at 3:32pm

It’s time to get over Florida. Yeah right! How do you get over the fiasco of Florida 2000?

I thought I was on my way when something unusual happened. A couple of weeks ago, I was outside in my garden cutting back the rose bushes and watering my collection of assorted annuals and perennials when a neighbor dropped by and whispered in my ear: “Katherine Harris is around the corner.” [IMGCAP(1)]

“Katherine who?” I demanded to know.

“Harris, the woman from Florida,” my neighbor repeated.

Within a second of hearing that name repeated, I dropped my garden clippers and stomped down the street to see for myself. True enough, Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) is officially my neighbor on Capitol Hill.

For many of my colleagues who labored on former Vice President Al Gore’s presidential team, the anger and disgust of the 2000 campaign and its messy aftermath remains part of our daily lives — especially with Republicans in control of government. For many Democrats, Florida was ground zero in our quest for comprehensive reform of our electoral systems. Now that the 2004 presidential season is in full gear, it’s time for Congress to refocus its attention on restoring citizens’ confidence at the ballot box. Perhaps we can start by urging the Bush administration to convene the Election Assistance Commission before the end of the year.

When Congress passed and President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act late last year, I thought some of us old Gore folks could rest easily at night. Lessons had been learned, and history would never repeat itself. Although HAVA was not perfect, its goal was to provide money to the states to replace antiquated voting machines, set uniform national standards for election procedures, require states to establish provisional voting, update statewide voter registration lists and enhance the electoral participation of all citizens.

Thus far, the Bush administration’s lack of guidance and the Congressional decision to cut funding has forced state leaders from across the country to determine what electoral improvements their pinched state budgets can afford before the 2004 presidential election.

Case in point: the upcoming gubernatorial recall election in California. The American Civil Liberties Union and civil rights leaders are right to raise concerns over the impact the Oct. 7 election will have on voters who reside in counties where the old voting systems will remain in place. Once again, the notorious and inefficient punch-card machines will be pulled from storage and plugged back into the electoral system. I hope that phrases such as “hanging chads,” “swinging chads” and “pregnant chads” will not make a return from the political graveyard to haunt us once again.

But the possibility does exist, and California is not alone in being behind the eight ball in preparing for the next election. According to recent press reports, Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell has postponed the selection of a vendor to help upgrade its system, so many voters in the Buckeye State may be using their old system during the 2004 primary season. Some states, like Illinois and Washington, could be up to speed in modernizing their equipment if more federal money would be made available.

In addition to money problems, some of the confusion and delay was prompted by a recent study published by Avi Rubin, a noted computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University. The study analyzed one of the leading vendors of new voting machines and found serious security flaws in its software. This issue has become so serious that Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) has called for an investigation of the state’s new $54 million computerized voting systems. Georgia’s Secretary of State Cathy Cox went so far as to place a bet with a computer programmer that the new systems are hack-proof.

Stay tuned. Better, why not consider holding a hearing on Rep. Rush Holt’s (D-N.J.) new electoral reform legislation, the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act? This bill would require all voting machines to create a receipt for voters to ensure their ballot has been properly recorded.

Voting is so essential to our form of democracy. Yet, for HAVA to work, the Bush administration and Congress must put some time into ensuring that these new computerized voting machines are fraud- and hack-proof. New statewide standards must be reviewed to conform to the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws. The rush to implement new criteria for citizens to gain access to the ballot, such as providing some form of identification and provisional voting, should also be the subject of Congressional hearings. As soon as the Election Assistance Commission is up and running, additional monies will be made available to help state governments provide much-needed voter education and training to their citizens.

The truth is, I have not gotten over Florida, but I am still working on it like everyone else. Perhaps it’s time to put the past behind and start a new page. Who knows? I might just stir up something hot and spicy and make an official visit down the street to say hello to my new neighbor.

Can you hear me greeting her on Halloween night? Knock, knock.

“Chads or treats?”