Election Experts Testify at Carter-Baker Panel

Posted April 18, 2005 at 6:37pm

In a spirited discussion Monday led by former President Jimmy Carter and ex-Secretary of State James Baker, a panel of a dozen elections experts offered varied assessments of the impact of the Help America Vote Act.

The first hearing of the new Commission on Federal Election Reform — established by a handful of foundations, nonprofits and academic research institutes — featured a wide selection of witnesses, ranging from state election officials who insisted that HAVA is working well to activists who highlighted failures in the system.

But while those testifying might have disagreed about the general health of the U.S. election administration system, they appeared to find common ground in their conclusion that Congress must fully fund HAVA, a law passed in 2002.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, noted that Congress authorized $3.9 billion when it first enacted HAVA in 2002, with much of that money aimed at helping states and localities upgrade their voting equipment.

While Congress has appropriated roughly $3 billion in HAVA funds to date, another $830 million is still outstanding — money that could help states and localities make local election systems more accessible to Latino voters, he said.

In her testimony, Common Cause President Chellie Pingree warned observers “not to judge the 2004 election based on the outcome.”

Instead, she said, one must look at how the voters fared under the current system of voting.

“The presidential election did not go smoothly, despite the fact that a president was chosen quickly without court intervention, and without the chaos that some election officials feared,” Pingree said. She noted that some voters waited in line for hours to cast their ballots, while others “lacked the most basic information about how to register to vote.”

Numerous Democrats in Congress are pushing for further changes to the system.

Earlier this year, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced the Democracy Begins at Home Act, which would require the Election Assistance Commission, an oversight entity created by HAVA, to establish mandatory standards for voting systems and poll workers within a certain geographic area.

The reform measure would also require voter-verified ballots, though not necessarily of the paper variety; Election Day registration procedures for each state; a national federal write-in absentee ballot; public notification of all voter roll purging 60 days in advance of a federal election; and numerous other changes.

But some witnesses at Monday’s hearings vigorously warned against such proposals.

“What works for one U.S. city does not work for Cocker City, Kan., home of the world’s largest ball of twine, if you’re looking for a vacation spot this summer,” said Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh (R).

Thornburgh told the panel that HAVA is, in fact, working well and cautioned against the government enacting any further federal reforms, saying they could create unnecessary regulations and micromanagement.

But Henry Brady, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of California, described only modest progress in the aftermath of HAVA.

Using data from ElectionLine.org, Brady noted that only 17 states appear to be HAVA compliant with new registration systems. Meanwhile, 10 states are working on new systems in-house with some consulting help, while 19 have contracts with vendors, three have outstanding requests for proposals and California is “lagging far behind.”

One of the more serious problems, Brady said, is the fact that even after those systems are completed, most of them will not be able to communicate easily with one another or with neighboring states to check for duplicate registrations, or to allow for in-precinct checking of voter registration information.

And therein lies a potential missed opportunity, Brady said. Even as states develop statewide registration systems, they’ll likely be supplemented by provisional balloting procedures that could have been taken care of when online in-precinct registration systems were developed.

Rick Hasen, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, testified that the real bad news from the 2004 elections is that things probably won’t get much better by 2008.

Voting technology has in fact improved by leaps and bounds and will continue to do so, he said. But given the extreme partisanship and the close divide of the American electorate, coupled with the structure of the Electoral College, Hasen predicts yet another razor-close presidential election in one or more battleground states.

Along with continuing shortcomings in election administration, he said, this is a “recipe for electoral meltdown.”

Hasen is calling for three reforms to combat such a crisis: universal voter registration conducted by the federal government, including a voter ID program; a transition to a nonpartisan election administration; and a willingness in the courts to entertain more pre-election, instead of post-election, litigation.

A complete summary of all testimony from Monday’s hearing is available at www.american.edu/Carter-Baker.

The commission’s next hearing will be held June 30 at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas — one of four primary sponsors of the commission. The other three are the American University Center for Democracy and Election Management, the Carter Center and ElectionLine.org.