American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management has bestowed an incredible gift on the nation: It has organized a bipartisan project that will examine the American election system and propose improvements. Better yet, the effort will be led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, and will include former Sen. Tom Daschle and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, among others. Congress should be underwriting this, but it's not going to, so American University's effort is most welcome. Congress must, however, heed the results.
The elections of 2000 and 2004 demonstrated just how critical an updating of America's election system is. American democracy runs on faith in that system, and too many voters have lost their faith, with good reason.
Carter said his group will address "issues of inclusion" in federal elections and make recommendations on how to improve it. "We will try to define an electoral system for the 21st century that will make Americans proud again."
That would be nice, but it will depend on congressional willingness to enact the changes the Carter-Baker group recommends, and such willingness may be difficult to obtain without massive public pressure. Given how far over the outrage line House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was willing to go to create new gerrymandered districts in Texas, we somehow doubt he and his colleagues will be much interested in what Carter and Baker have to say. It will be up to the public to force them to listen.
We hope the group will examine closely the role of the Electoral College and consider whether direct election of presidents wouldn't be wiser. Too, a reform that is gaining appeal is instant runoff voting, in which a voter records his first, second and third choices. IRV allows voters to cast a symbolic vote for someone unlikely to win, without skewing an election outcome. If a candidate fails to cross a specified first-choice vote threshold, her votes are then distributed to the second choices of voters who favored her.
More mundane but critical matters also will require consideration, including the question of whether Congress should establish a national standard for voting machines. Those that don't create a paper trail which allows a recount should be prohibited. There's too much at stake to allow even the possibility that someone can tinker with machines to produce a phony result.
Carter and Baker said their group will hold two hearings and hopes to have recommendations ready by September. Then it will be up to the American public to force Congress to heed its work. Avoiding a repeat of the frustrations and fears of 2000 and 2004 means paying attention starting right now.