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United Press Intl.

New voting law just a start, say experts
By Christian Bourge
October 31, 2002

A new federal law aimed at reforming the nation's election procedures to eliminate miscounts and fraud is likely to have a minimal impact on the quality of the voting process, according to a series of reports from an influential think tank. Election experts on all sides of the issue agree with the reports' conclusions.

"This act covers only a small portion of the larger problems of election administration and voting," Jon B. Gould, assistant director of the administration of justice program at George Mason University Law School, told United Press International.

After months of debate in the U.S. House and Senate, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 into law on Tuesday. The measure establishes minimum federal standards intended to prevent fraud as well as the type of ballot disputes that delayed the certification of Florida's results during the 2000 presidential elections.

The new law authorizes $3.9 billion in federal spending over the next three years, focused primarily on assisting states to replace old voting technologies such as punch cards and lever voting machines.

The law also provides money for the establishment of computerized lists of registered voters in each state, the implementation of technology to allow ballot review prior to a vote being counted, and training for poll workers.

But a series of reports recently published by the liberal Century Foundation that examine the 2001 governors races in Virginia and New Jersey and mayoral races in Los Angeles and New York City, found that these technology-focused reforms are only the beginning of what is needed.

The Century reports show that election problems in 2001 were much less significant in Virginia and Los Angeles, where reforms similar to those just enacted by Congress already exist. In New Jersey and New York City, election problems were found to be much more severe and have been attributed to their scattershot approach to election reform and lack of new voting technologies.

According to the reports, although new technology could reduce voter error and uncounted ballots, voter education, poll worker training and other factors were also important to reduce these problems. These are factors that some analysts believe the new law does not adequately address.

Gould, who authored the Century report "Florida Moves North: Electoral Reform in Virginia Post 2000," said that Virginia has made great strides on the issue.

"Virginia is a valuable lesson for the rest of the country," said Gould. "There are a number of models, but I think Virginia deserves credit for solving many of the problems other states have found."

He said that Virginia's combining of new voting technologies with education efforts aimed at voters and poll workers, along with the development of statewide registration rolls, were effective moves to counter existing problems. He said that the new voting act would promote similar improvements across the nation

However, Gould believes that these mandates will only make a small impact on the overall election process because of the limited funding provided by Congress.

"If they truly want to fix the problems of miscast ballots from machines, and if Congress believes it is important to replace machines, then they need to give states more money to do that," he said. "The reforms in this bill threaten to be an under funded federal mandate."

Voting machines and related technology problems are only a small portion of the picture, he said.

"The larger problem is voter education for which the bill has some money but not enough," he said.

Gould added that the $5 million that the act allocates to encourage voter turnout is "just a drop in the bucket" compared to what is needed to develop effective voter education efforts nationwide.

Amy Kauffman, director of the project on campaign and election laws at the conservative Hudson Institute, said that calls for more spending ignore the reality of the situation.

"It (the voting act) was four billion dollars that the government didn't need to spend," Kauffman said.

She noted that no matter how much money is spent or how many changes are made to the American election system, it is still a human design that will be prone to error.

"The bottom line is that we are never going to be able to prevent another Florida," she said. "Next time it will be in New Jersey or Arizona. No matter how much money you throw at the situation you will not eliminate human error."

Nevertheless, Robert Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy, says the reforms are a good step in the right direction. He noted, however, that they still fail to address other overriding concerns.

"This bill should go a long way to make elections better but we still have a number of troubles that are not addressed by this bill," said Richie, whose advocacy group promotes election reforms such as instant runoff voting,

He said that the potential of proportional representation -- as an alternative to current plurality-based elections -- and low interest by voters are still major concerns.

Besides technology, other major areas addressed by the act include the requirement that first-time voters who registered by mail present identification at polling places as a means to prevent fraud. New criminal penalties for voter and registration fraud are also established under the measure.

States are also required to define in state law what constitutes a valid vote on the various types of voting equipment used locally, in order to avoid the kinds of ballot questions raised in the 2000 Florida presidential recount.

The states must also have a method that allows people who are not listed on the precinct voter list on Election Day to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted only after their registration is verified.

Kauffman said that better training for poll workers would be the reform that would have the greatest impact.

"That is something that the states should be doing," she said. "It is also something candidates should be doing in terms of having people outside of the polls informing people where their names are on the ballots."

Kauffman also supports the new law's requirement that states adopt technology to streamline the voter registration system. She stressed, however, that implementing new technologies is costly and will not necessarily improve the chances for error free elections, and cited as proof the failures in the use of touch screen voting in Florida precincts during this year's gubernatorial primaries.

"Technology helps out the situation, it doesn't solve our problems," she said.

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