Calls for electoral standards mount

By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
Published December 22nd 2004 in The Augusta Chronicle
The day after Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."

In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying, "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." All returning members of the Congressional Black Caucus have endorsed a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.

The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and will remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.

Consider these six reforms for improving our elections:

Nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states - Ohio, Missouri and Michigan - were co-chairs of their state's George Bush re-election campaigns. The Missouri secretary of state oversaw elections for his own race for governor. A Mexican observer commented, "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Administrators instead should be nonpartisan civil servants with demonstrated proficiency in running elections, and commitment to making the process transparent and secure.

National elections commission. The United States leaves election administration to officials in more than 3,000 counties and 9,000 townships scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a recipe for inconsistency and unfairness. Most democracies instead use national elections commissions to establish minimum standards and uniformity. The Elections Assistance Commission, established by the Help America Vote Act, should be strengthened and should partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans.

Universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 automatically are registered to vote. This practice is used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours - in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults already are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the United States is now easier as result of the Help America Vote Act, which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls and end duplicate registrations.

"Public interest" voting equipment. Current voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. Proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties that sell equipment by courting local administrators who often possess limited knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly owned, open-source software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector to ensure all public interest needs are met. That equipment should be made available throughout the nation to ensure that every county - and every voter - can use the best equipment. Other national governments have developed their own voting equipment with very positive results.

Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy workday instead of a national holiday or weekend - like most other nations do - creating a barrier for 9-to-5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico makes Election Day a holiday and typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States.

Commissions to evaluate structural reform like redistricting and the Electoral College: Congress and states should establish commissions to evaluate turnout and make recommendations. Redistricting and winner-take-all elections are shutting out competition in most legislative races. Nationally, the Electoral College method used for president causes campaigns to completely ignore most states, and invites partisan shenanigans by allowing a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency. We support direct election of the president by majority vote, as well as full/proportional representation methods for legislatures that makes redistricting unnecessary.

We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eyes on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.