A Vote For All Panel Wants Universal Registration, Revamped Primaries

By Rob Richie and Steven Hill
Published September 26th 2005 in Hartford Courant
This month's report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker deserves serious attention. Although dominated by aging politicians of the major parties, the commission makes recommendations that would greatly improve our elections.

The commission's boldest call is for universal voter registration, a practice used by many democracies around the world in which all eligible voters are automatically registered to vote. Universal registration would add more than 50 million unregistered Americans - nearly three in 10 eligible voters, disproportionately young and low-income - to voter rolls.

The devil is in the details, and the commission fails to lay out a clear plan for how to ensure that all eligible voters are registered. But if implemented fully, this would be one of the single most important government civil rights actions since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Other commission recommendations respond directly to problems in our recent elections. They include:

Nonpartisan election officials. In the wake of presidential races in which secretaries of state in Florida and Ohio made controversial decisions affecting a tightly fought national race, the commission calls for nonpartisan election officials. This would help rid our elections of the appearance of fraud, and might dissuade actual fraud.

Paper trails. Heeding a rising tide of grass-roots activism founded on a mistrust of the privately owned voting equipment companies that run our elections, the commission calls for a paper audit trail that has been verified by each individual voter.

National elections assistance. Challenging the majority view of the old guard National Association of Secretaries of State that voted in February to restore what essentially amounted to the pre-2000 decentralized regime for administering elections, commissioners call for ongoing federal election funding and a strong Election Assistance Commission.

Revamped presidential primary schedule. The commission supports overhauling the presidential primary schedule. The current system is absolutely bankrupt, with states chaotically advancing their primaries in the hope of gaining candidate attention - but collectively making it even more likely that Iowa and New Hampshire will be the only states that matter.

True, none of these proposals are the transformative changes that might truly shake up partisan calculations. There's no call for getting rid of the Electoral College, a constitutional right to vote, instant runoff voting to accommodate more choices, nor nonpartisan redistricting, campaign finance reform, fusion and proportional voting to bring choices and better representation. They don't suggest citizen assemblies to put such reforms on the table.

In addition, as part of a trade-off to secure bipartisan support for policies designed to increase the voter rolls, the report recommends measures to prevent vote fraud that are problematic. Absentee voters need only sign their ballot to prove validity, for example, while voters at the polls would have to present a photo ID. And although the commission recommends that IDs be free, states may seek to charge fees and other practical barriers that would be tantamount to a poll tax.

The commission in general falls short by failing to establish a national system. There is no doubt that some states will abuse these recommendations, jumping to require photo IDs while not registering all eligible voters. But Americans are increasingly fed up with both major parties, and efforts to block reasonable steps toward free and fair elections could be political folly.

Certainly it is high time to call for clean and complete rolls with 100 percent registration. Who would have thought that James Baker and Jimmy Carter would lead that call?

Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote, an independent group that promotes election reform. Steven Hill is an Irvine senior fellow with New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy organization, and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics." They wrote this for the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.