Debacle Redux

Posted October 25, 2004 at 4:36pm

Let’s all hope — fervently — that next Tuesday’s election produces a clear presidential winner. If it doesn’t, the rancorous aftermath could make the Florida 2000 debacle look like a 1960s San Francisco love-in. And if it happens, a lot of the blame will rest squarely on Congress’ shoulders.

After 2000, everybody agreed that election reform was an urgent priority. But Congress took its sweet time, nearly two years, enacting the Help America Vote Act. Then, Congressional leaders and the Bush White House delayed appointing members of the Election Assistance Commission. The Senate stalled in confirming the nominees. As a result, the agency didn’t set up shop until January 2004. And, on top of all that, Congress and the White House deeply underfunded the whole reform effort.

As Democrats and Republicans prepare to unleash 20,000 lawyers on precinct polling places and county election offices around the nation, it’s obvious that Congress also failed to anticipate the problems that HAVA would create — especially, controversies over how to meet the requirement that voters be allowed to cast provisional ballots when they show up at a polling place and appear not to be registered. Already, lawsuits have been filed and adjudicated in several states over such issues as whether provisional ballots need to be cast in the voter’s home precinct. More lawsuits can be expected after the election. And conceivably, provisional ballots could hold the key to which candidate carries one or more states — and, maybe, who wins the presidency.

In an eminently fair-minded report on HAVA last week, electionline.org concluded that while “some of the factors that led to the Florida debacle of 2004 have been addressed, many others have not. The expectation that the entire American election system would be overhauled in time for Nov. 2 has clearly not been met. Antiquated voting systems remain and our system for managing elections for Americans stationed or living abroad are virtually unchanged. Federal funds for election improvements arrived late.”

If Congress had acted with dispatch and passed HAVA in 2001 or early 2002 instead of late 2002, there might have been time to anticipate new problems, train polling workers and educate voters. Instead, hordes of first-time voters are likely to appear at the polls, many of them without adequate identification. Nor has Congress fully funded election reform. Of the $10 million authorized for the EAC in fiscal 2004, only $2 million was appropriated. For aid to the states, $3.86 billion was authorized but only $1.5 billion was appropriated.

Now, though, Republican lawyers will scream, “Fraud,” and Democratic lawyers, “Disenfranchisement.” After the United States has taken upon itself — legitimately — to teach the world about democracy, this year’s election could make this country an international laughingstock, with suggestions abounding that the Carter Center or the United Nations look in on future elections. Hope it doesn’t happen. Hope hard.

CLARIFICATION:

The Oct. 26 editorial, “Debacle Redux,” stated that $1.5 billion has been appropriated to the states for election reform. In addition to the $1.5 billion appropriated in 2004, there was an addition $1.5 billion in the 2003 omnibus spending bill.