Legislation Awaits to Stave Off Possible Election Meltdown

Posted April 21, 2008 at 5:04pm

Like every American, I feel a deep sense of patriotic pride in the staggering increase in voter participation during this long primary season. From coast to coast, in primaries and caucuses, more new voices are being heard than ever before. Unfortunately, the story that has not received the coverage it deserves — and has the potential to affect election results across the country — is the crumbling infrastructure that supports our election system.

[IMGCAP(1)]Is anyone paying attention to the potential nightmare that awaits us this fall?

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the leader of the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition, has just released “Looking Ahead to November,” a report that chronicles the administrative hurdles voters were confronted with during this year’s primaries. The report offers specific steps that lawmakers, state and local election administrators, and even perhaps the two major political parties can take before Nov. 4 to lessen the disenfranchisement caused by insufficient and incompetent election administration. After all, no one is interested in witnessing another Florida fiasco or Ohio meltdown.

CalTech and MIT estimated that up to 6 million eligible voters were disenfranchised in 2000 because of problems at the ballot box, including the administration of the election itself. The votes of 6 million Americans — a number that dwarfs the margin of difference between the vote totals in the last two presidential elections — were discounted simply because we failed to plan. Both sides of the aisle owe it to voters to do everything in their power to ensure that all those eligible can meaningfully participate in this year’s critical elections.

The report lists four areas that, unless we act immediately, have the potential to prevent a significant number of eligible voters from casting a meaningful ballot on Election Day: undertrained poll workers, election machinery breakdowns, problems with registration rolls and confusion on voter-identification requirements.

In state after state, voters called the 866-OUR-VOTE hotline and complained of poll workers who, not knowing or understanding the rules and laws, refused eligible voters their right to vote.

In many places, there are insufficient contingency plans for voting machinery failure. This causes polls to shut down and long lines that prevent some from casting a ballot because they can’t wait for hours. These delays, combined with insufficient poll worker training, result in voters casting provisional ballots and other methods of voting that might not count.

Elsewhere across the country, eligible voters showed up at the polls to find that their registrations were not on the rolls or that they were registered for the wrong party. Many of these voters had registered at the DMV or social service agencies, as mandated by the National Voter Registration Act (“Motor Voter”), causing concerns over how and even whether that critical voting rights statute is being enforced.

Finally, poll workers across the country were implementing restrictive voter-identification requirements that were in violation of state law. (Note: The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case this spring that could wreak havoc on the system.) Students, minority voters and new citizens were often asked for identification while other voters were allowed to vote without showing any proof of identity.

A critical obstacle to real reform is that election administration is treated as a political issue, debated and discussed in the context of a horse race and not a serious policy issue. We need to craft solutions to the problems voters face. While much of the heavy lifting in solving these problems must be done at the state and local levels, Congress can and should play a role. It needs to hold hearings now, while the problems are fresh in our collective memory, and pass legislation that offers nonpartisan but practical solutions.

Until then, however, Congress can pass a trio of bills that will begin the process of overcoming these issues before November. Both the House and Senate Judiciary committees have passed the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act of 2007. The Senate should quickly complete that process by passing this bill that will eliminate the misinformation and intimidation of cynical dirty tricks that prevent voters from participating in the process.

Concurrently, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) has introduced a bill to prevent the similarly unacceptable practice of “voter caging,” a long-recognized voter-suppression tactic that has been used to target minority voters. As a whole, the bill has a lot of good ideas, especially the mandate that anyone who challenges the right of another citizen to vote must set forth the specific grounds for their alleged ineligibility, under penalty of perjury. This common-sense bill can and should be passed immediately.

Finally, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, has introduced a targeted bill that would provide for emergency ballots when voting equipment fails. And newly elected Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) also has a bill that would allow provisional ballots to be counted.

While we are long past the time to make sweeping federal changes to election administration that will affect this cycle, these individual bills offer manageable and common-sense solutions that will help tackle many of the problems voters will confront this fall.

Voter turnout has never lived up to our nation’s democratic potential. We are making great strides this year toward that noble goal. We have the opportunity to inspire a new generation of civic involvement and responsibility through the excitement of this election. I am committed to honoring this moment by urging Congress to help ensure that every voter, new and experienced, has a meaningful opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote. Only then can we all sit back on Election Day and witness the glow of this chorus of democracy undimmed by the preventable horrors of previous elections.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.