By Rob Richie and Tom Perez
Published October 29th 2006 in Portsmouth Herald
After Maryland finally finished counting ballots more than a week after its September primary, the finger pointing about responsibility for primary day's chaos at the polls began in earnest. Dozens of polling places failed to open on time, others opened without their voting machines working, new electronic pollbooks kept crashing, and after polling hours were extended for an hour in two counties, even more problems developed.
With critical elections for most of our highest offices expected to be closely contested around the nation on Nov. 7, the Keystone Kops nature of too many of our elections is all the more troubling. Not only does inept election administration cause tens of thousands of people to lose their right to vote and frustrate many more, it increases community distrust in the basic functioning of our democracy.
Americans must see their elected officials and election administrators taking bold, clear steps to ensure secure and fair elections. What we must do is uphold two fundamental principles of running elections well: accountability and transparency. The blame game among state and county elections officials and various political leaders only increases voter cynicism -- and points to policy changes demanded at the state level.
Let's start with accountability. We expect all county elections directors to accept full accountability for what happens in November.
For the moment, our counties in most states are responsible for key decisions such as hiring, training and paying pollworkers, setting up polling places, establishing systems of Election Day communication, and handling breakdowns in electronic machines and pollbooks.
But we not only must trust, but verify. Every election director should make public in a timely way for public review and comment his or her county's plan for running elections and a full checklist of what he or she plans to do in preparation for elections.
We need utter transparency for decision-making that all too often is made behind closed doors.
Looking at a concrete example, one of the most astounding breakdowns in Maryland was with Election Day communication. Once pollworkers in dozens of polling places found they didn't have the access cards necessary to start up their electronic machines, many had no clue what to do. When polls were extended, many pollworkers never learned about it, while others botched the process by failing to allow people in line before the original poll-closing time to continue to vote on machines. It's hardly rocket science to establish a simple requirement that pollworkers call in regularly to headquarters.
But changes in polices are typically needed. We must review our elections from top to bottom. We should increase funding for such basic systems as obtaining and training pollworkers, take steps to protect voting rights and secure voting in city elections, and ask whether new electronic technology for voting and checking in voters has created more problems then it has solved. We should use better voting machines that have paper trails and can handle democracy innovations like instant runoff voting.
Resolving accountability is a fundamental demand. The international model, one last year proposed by a national commission headed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, is to establish a nonpartisan state elections chief with the authority to direct local elections boards.
After appointment by the governor and confirmation by a supermajority in the legislature, this official would have real independence from political pressure -- but just as important, they should have strict accountability to standards of performance, combined with transparent processes in planning and evaluating elections.
Democracy is not only a goal for export. We must bring it home.
Let's run better elections this November and then establish clear accountability and transparency through policy changes next year.
Tom Perez serves on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote.