Congress Should Get Busy Promptly on Election Reform

Posted September 21, 2005 at 4:52pm

America is forever vowing “Never Again” — after an overseas genocide, a domestic disaster or a flawed election. Then, time passes, inertia sets in and only half-measures get taken. Down the line, the vows get repeated all over again.[IMGCAP(1)]

We’ll see whether the hurricanes of 2005 produce better disaster preparedness than the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks did, but one thing is certain: Another 2000 election debacle surely could happen again, because the reforms adopted afterward were inadequate.

Congress did pass the 2002 Help America Vote Act to upgrade voting machines and to train election workers, but the 2004 election was still marred by confusion, long lines, allegations of fraud, confusion about the filing of provisional ballots and complaints that the new technology lacked a “paper trail” to verify voting.

A new bipartisan commission, headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, has just reviewed the existing system and come up with recommendations — recommendations that have been met mostly with criticism over its call for a national system of voter identification.

In response to complaints about the 2004 election, about eight bills have been introduced in Congress, most of them Republican efforts to prevent vote fraud and Democratic efforts to expand access to the polls.

One bill, sponsored by Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) with a bipartisan cast of 138 co-sponsors, is designed to upgrade technology and ensure a paper trail. But there have been no hearings on that bill or any other. Inertia is setting in.

As Carter and Baker said in their report, “Americans are losing confidence in the fairness of elections.” Prior to the 2004 vote, a New York Times poll found that only one-third of U.S. adults said they had “a lot” of confidence that their votes would be properly counted.

Afterward, a Pew Research Center poll found that only 48 percent were “very confident” that votes across the country were accurately counted. “Had the margin of victory for the [2004] election been narrower,” the Carter-Baker report said, “the lengthy dispute that followed the 2000 election could have been repeated.”

The commission called for Congress to start working on HAVA upgrades before the law fully takes effect in 2006, so as not to endanger the 2008 election.

Regardless of whether Congress encourages or requires a national photo-ID system — as it has already done for driver’s licenses — there are more than 80 other recommendations in the report that Congress should consider.

The major one is a universal voter registration system in which the states, not local jurisdictions, are responsible for the accuracy and quality of voter registration lists and a national system for sharing lists that voters could check for errors.

“Under the current system,” commission Executive Director Robert Pastor told me in an interview, “counties control the lists. One-sixth of Americans move every year, and counties tend just to add new registrants and not delete old ones.

“The inflated lists can be abused,” he said, and noted that the largest single complaint of voters during the 2004 elections concerned registration lists. Florida reportedly has more than 140,000 voters also registered in other states, including 46,000 in New York. In 2000, more than 2,000 people voted in two states.

The commission made complicated and detailed recommendations for ensuring the security of both voter lists — which will contain Social Security numbers and verified signatures — and computerized voting machinery.

It’s always seemed to me that the election system should take lessons from the banking system, which operates 370,000 secure ATM machines and processes billions of checks with an error rate near zero (and a high degree of trustworthiness among the public).

The commission also recommended that elections be managed on a nonpartisan basis, rather than having elected secretaries of state like now-Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Ohio’s Ken Blackwell (R) accused of rigging the system to help their parties.

Americans resist the idea of a national ID card, hoping to preserve frontier-era privacy and anonymity. But the fact is that almost everyone has to have a Social Security number and a government ID card of some type to board a plane or cash a check.

Former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a commission member, dissented from the panel’s report and charged that the ID card proposal amounted to “a modern-day poll tax.”

Other Democrats and The New York Times charged that it would disenfranchise people without driver’s licenses, particularly the poor, minorities, the elderly and disabled.

However, the commission noted that 88 percent of Americans have driver’s licenses and recommended that states take aggressive steps to seek out unregistered people, get them registered and provide them with ID cards.

Pastor said Carter was particularly anxious to avoid the example of Georgia, which requires voters to pay for mandatory ID cards and has set up no registration facilities in Atlanta.

Every election, Republicans and their media allies allege that Democrats have tried to perpetrate widespread fraud at the polls, and Democrats charge that the GOP is trying to suppress voting and disenfranchise Democrats.

It’s time for this to end, and if we need a national ID system, so be it. The obvious flaws in our election system demand that Congress declare “Never Again” — and mean it.