Striving for a smooth election

By Miles Rapoport
Published October 29th 2008 in The Boston Globe
First, the expected record turnout is a cause for celebration. When I served as Connecticut's secretary of the state in the mid-'90s, my colleagues and I bemoaned low voter participation, especially among young people, and the disengagement it reflected from politics and democratic life. Not this time. Registrations have poured in, turnout in the primaries achieved record levels, and all indications are that the wave will continue through Tuesday. Democracy is vibrant and very much alive.

It is therefore a shame that the issue of ACORN's voter registration work has dominated the news about voting.

To be sure, ACORN bears some responsibility. It had quality controls in place, but should have leaned even further backward to ensure that problems would be minimized. Still, 900,000 valid registrations, including new registrants and changes of address, is an important accomplishment. Of course, all groups doing voter registration would be better served by reporting their results with more precision and a little less hype.

But overall, this is a trumped-up controversy. There has been no attempt by ACORN to encourage fraudulent voting, and on close reading the critics do not even make such a claim. ACORN has done a service by reaching out to people who might have been left out. Why, then, the ferocity of the attack?

In part, it is an element of a coordinated campaign directed against Barack Obama, demonizing ACORN and then linking Obama to the organization as a way to raise doubts about him.

In addition, raising doubts about the validity of registrations fits a pattern of efforts to discourage people from voting - from lawsuits to shut down early voting centers in Indiana and stop same-day registration in Ohio to efforts to purge people from voting rolls because their houses were foreclosed or their names didn't perfectly match error-ridden databases like Social Security. Worse, it could lay the groundwork for wholesale challenges to the results, seeking to throw the legitimacy of the election into question and the results once again into the hands of the courts.

What is needed is action by election officials to ensure that next Tuesday goes as smoothly as possible. Many deserve real credit for doing just that. This preparation includes:

# accurate lists from which eligible voters have not been purged

# adequate numbers of machines to avoid long lines, and an ample supply of paper ballots as backups

# sufficient numbers of poll workers, with trained problem-solvers at each precinct

# preparation for extended hours if required, to ensure that every voter has a chance to vote

# fair counting of provisional ballots, so that valid votes are not discounted

After the election, Congress, the new president, and state legislators and election officials need to realize it is time to get the election systems right. The nation needs an expansive and reliable voter registration system, which includes Election Day registration (which Massachusetts almost passed earlier this year), proactive implementation of the National Voter Registration Act, "pre-registration" for 17-year-olds, and steps toward universal registration.

Voting options need to be expanded, including more accessible voting by mail and early voting. Thirty-four states have utilized early voting this year, widening voting opportunities and taking pressure off Election Day itself; others should follow suit.

Also, strong national standards are needed for election administration, with sustained federal funding to assist states in carrying them out and the enforcement authority to make them stick. We need machines that voters can have full confidence in, list management systems that delete outdated names but protect eligible voters, clear rules for poll workers, and clear standards for counting provisional ballots.

People care about voting as they haven't in 40 years. By taking the steps needed, officials can capture the surge in participation and give Americans the democracy they deserve.

Miles Rapoport is the president of Demos, a New York-based public policy center.