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Knight Ridder

Needed: A Commitment to Democracy

By Rob Richie

The following commentary was distributed by Knight Ridder on its national wire on February 1.

The 2000 presidential election presented two dramatic, but competing lessons to the American people. On the one hand, George Bush's victory in Florida by less than one vote for every 10,000 cast was a graphic lesson in how an individual vote clearly can count. On the other, your vote may not be counted.

The bizarre series of events in the weeks of recounting Florida's ballots sparked disbelief about how the world's dominant superpower can choose its leaders with outdated voting machines, inconsistent standards for design, irregular poll hours, limited number of polling sites that led to absurdly long lines, absentee voting rules that undercut the votes of those in the armed voices and often zealously partisan administrators. Several Members of Congress quickly responded with legislation to set clear standards and assist states in efforts to modernize voting equipment and procedures.

But most of these bills have been inadequate. The level of proposed funding for most has been minuscule when compared to the significance of presidential elections. It is time to commit to firm action to restore faith in our electoral process.

We estimate that it would cost some $3 billion to have every voter in America be able to vote on state-of-the-art voting equipment by the next presidential election, with more money necessary to train pollworkers, have appropriate polling hours and number of polling sites and improve registration procedures. That's not small change, but it's significantly smaller than some wildly inflated estimates. Surely a democracy we can trust is worth a one-time cost equal to barely one percent of what we spend annually on defense.

Furthermore, most new voting equipment would likely be purchased anyway, but on a haphazard, county-by county basis. Punchcards, the most common voting method, have been completely discredited, and already several states are entertaining proposals to purchase new machines. Indeed, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in Bush v. Gore and class action suits filed against unequal election administration in states like Florida, Georgia and Illinois, some states easily could face federal court orders to upgrade their equipment before the year is out.

States and counties are right to take the initiative to ensure all voters in their state are treated equally at the polls, but only the federal government can make it likely that all states and all voters will benefit before the 2004 elections from modern voting equipment and procedures. To ensure that it's not just wealthy states that get the best voting process, President Bush and Congress should appropriate funds to make it possible for every state to purchase new voting equipment-- a federal commitment of $5 for every $1 from a state should do it.

Developing sensible standards is not rocket science. Machines should make it impossible to overvote (cast more than one vote in a race, as happened in more than one in ten ballots in one Florida county with a particularly confusing ballot design) and unlikely to undervote by accident (consigning dimpled chads to history's ashbin), prevent corruption and be as easy as possible for people with a range of educational backgrounds, voting experience and physical capacities. The best bet is some form of ATM-style electronic voting machine, but states could choose among vendors as long as they met the criteria.

This is no time for timid, inside-the-Beltway thinking. Anything less than a full commitment to creating the best electoral process in the world is intolerable in the wake of last year's electoral fiasco. Modern voting machines and better voting procedures are only one step in that quest, but an essential step for which we should achieve wide agreement.

Forty years ago, John Kennedy pledged that by the end of the decade, we would place a man upon the moon. We succeeded. Let us restore Americans' faith in our elections and the power of their individual vote by pledging that everyone who wants to vote will have a vote that counts by the next presidential race in 2004.

Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy.

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