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The U.S. is ready for election reform

By Bill Boyne
Published February 3rd 2009 in Rochester Post Bulletin
The next presidential election is not scheduled until 2012.

The next few years offer a great opportunity to make much-needed changes in the way elections are conducted in the United States.

There are a number of well-defined changes that, taken together, could make conducting elections more efficient and could make them a more accurate reflection of what voters want to achieve. Those changes are easy to state but difficult to accomplish. They include the following reforms:

1. Establish a universal voter registration program.

Under this system, the federal government would assume responsibility for registering voters. Young people are registered when they become 18 and people who move to this country are registered when they establish residency.

This is the system used in most countries where 90 percent or more of the eligible population is registered to vote. In this country, fewer than 75 percent of eligible voters are registered.

The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School has made an extensive study of this issue. It has stated that "An automatic voter registration system creates voter rolls that are as comprehensive as possible well in advance of election day and provides a fail-safe mechanism if an eligible voter shows up at the polls but cannot be found on the list. Such systems are routine in other countries."

The nonprofit organization FairVote also endorses the system. It has said that, "While no voter registration process is perfect, ours is riddled with flaws. The United States is one of the few democracies in the world where the government does not take responsibility for registering voters.

"Instead, our government leaves the construction of voter rolls up to partisan and non-partisan voter registration organizations, political parties, election officials and active citizens. Sadly, this hands-off approach invites voter registration fraud.

"It is not surprising that voter rolls are neither complete nor accurate."

2. Establish a system in which voters rank all the candidates in any election. This plan is called Instant Runoff Voting. It works like this:

• If there are six candidates in the race, the voter expresses an opinion on all of them by ranking them No. 1 through No 6.

• If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the votes for the least popular candidates are not wasted. They are assigned to the more popular candidates on the basis of the voters' second choices.

The result is the same as if a second runoff election had been held after eliminating the candidate who received the fewest votes.

The system avoids electing someone to office who is favored by fewer than 50 percent of the voters. In this year's elections, five legislative races in Minnesota were won by candidates with fewer than 50 percent of the vote. Since 1998, 14 statewide elections in Minnesota have been won by candidates who were backed by a minority of voters. In 1998, Jesse Ventura was elected governor with only 37 percent of the vote.

The instant-runoff system also avoids the difficult situation in which a third candidate, with very little support, effectively decides the results of an election in which there are two leading candidates who are favored by a much larger number of voters.

3. Establish rigorous requirements for all voting machines used in elections.

Many kinds of voting machines are in use. Some are subject to manipulation and some do not provide a paper record to verify the electronic count.

The Brennan Center for Election Reform at New York University Law School has made an extensive study of vote machines and has made the following recommendations:

• Vote machines must have an automatic recount audit comparing the electronic record of voting with the voter-verified paper record.

• Use of voting machines with wireless components should be banned in order to prevent use of wireless sources to change the vote totals.

4. Abolish the electoral college and elect the candidate who receives the largest popular vote.

The electoral college has been called an "18th century horse-and-buggy anachronism" and it serves no useful purpose.

If there had been no electoral college, Al Gore would have been elected in 2000 based on the popular vote. We would have been spared eight years of a disastrous presidency and would not have started a tragic war in which more than 4,000 U.S. troops were killed.

Because the national voting system is so vast, it will take a determined effort to make the necessary changes. However, few things are more important than conducting honest and efficient elections that accurately reflect the wishes of the voters.

Voters who want their wishes reflected accurately and political leaders both have a responsibility to pursue these reforms as expeditiously as possible, starting today. We will have a stronger democracy if most citizens recognize that every effort is being made to see that elections are conducted fairly and efficiently.

Bill Boyne is a retired editor and publisher of the Post-Bulletin. His column appears weekly.