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Tallahassee Democrat

Versions of this commentary also appeared in the Wilmington Star News (NC), San Francisco Examiner (CA) and other publications around the nation.

Florida isn't alone: Democracy's infrastructure is decrepit
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
October 2, 2002

We may be the world's remaining superpower and high-tech leader, but we still can't count the votes right. Florida recently received well-deserved ridicule after yet another "gang that couldn't shoot straight" fiasco in its primary.

Florida is far from alone. State after state has had problems with polls not opening on time, machines breaking down, voter registration cards getting lost, underpaid pollworkers not carrying out their duties. In Michigan's hotly-contested gubernatorial primaries, more than one in ten ballots were invalidated.

It has been nearly two years since Florida introduced new vocabulary words like "chad" and "butterfly ballots," yet the federal bill that was supposed to fix it -- or at least start us in the right direction -- is stalled, with neither the President nor congressional leaders showing leadership to avoid hypocrisy when lecturing other nations about democracy.

Our democracy has obvious great strengths, including strong legal protections and a free press, but when it comes to elections, we are surprisingly backward. Many other nations make a far higher relative investment in their elections and adopt more advanced voting methods.

Brazil, for example, has a national computer-based system with safeguards in place that essentially eliminate voter error. Most European nations have modern voter registration systems that lead to near-universal registration among adults, while nearly a third of American adults are unregistered.

In the United Kingdom, London elects its mayor using high-speed optical scan voting machines that allow voters to rank both their first and runoff choices. The ballots then can be counted to simulate an "instant runoff" election to provide for a majority winner in one election. In stark contrast, the great city of New York in 2001 spent an extra $10 million and strained its ancient pull-lever voting equipment to carry out a traditional "delayed," two-round mayoral runoff. These advances are not rocket science, yet the United States lags woefully behind.

From ballot access to campaign finance to voter registration to pollworker training, our electoral practices are a hodgepodge of confused regulation and ambiguous standards. Unlike that of our roads, airports or military, our democracy's infrastructure has been grossly underfunded for years. Not surprisingly, we are paying the price. Think of it as a massive bridge that is creaking and groaning at its hinges, for lack of enough maintenance.

We need to invest in the infrastructure of our democracy. If we can't count the votes, elections become a less meaningful exercise, both in perception and practice. And we need to be smart about our investments. If we followed the recommendation of last year's Gerald Ford-Jimmy Carter reform commission, for example, we would make election day a holiday and have a far greater pool of potential pollworkers.

We also must do our best to make voting meaningful. Our "winner-take-all" system has reached a near breaking point. Incumbents often draw their own district lines in redistricting, thereby guaranteeing themselves and their political allies safe seats. Campaigns are increasingly watered down by poll-tested blandness and sound bites. Even governance is becoming hostage to the permanent winner-take-all campaign, where party leaders have one eye on showing up their competition.

We need a thorough debate -- nationally and in states through high-level commissions -- about alternative democratic practices, including alternatives to winner-take-all elections such as proportional voting methods for representative assemblies and instant runoff voting for one-winner contests.

Turning a blind eye to our antiquated and creaking democratic infrastructure, from voting machines to voting methods, does a disservice to the American electorate and to the future of American democracy.

Steven Hill is a senior policy analyst with the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics." Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. Contact the Center at, PO Box 60037, Washington, DC 20039.

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