Recommendations for reform: with numerous studies and reports, there is no dearth of advice on how to overhaul the country's election system.
As a result, legislators have an ocean of reports and recommendations to guide them as they seek to guarantee that the 2000 election debacle never happens again. Legislative sessions this year will undoubtedly be awash with election reform bills perhaps exceeding the more than 1,500 pieces of election-related legislation introduced in 2001.
National organizations, special legislative committees, federal agencies and numerous state and local election administrators have produced more than 50 reports containing hundreds of specific reform ideas. These groups met frequently, listened to testimony, gathered research and drafted reports containing guidelines and recommendations on how to improve the election system. So there will be plenty of "grist for the mill" when legislators tackle the problem anew this session. But will voters notice major changes when they cast ballots in the '02 elections? Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest cautions that it could take time to implement the reforms called for by the numerous reports.
"Voters going to the polls in 2002 are going to expect sweeping changes, and those sweeping changes are not yet going to be in place," says Priest, the former president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "There will be some changes, but even in 2003, legislators still will be working on reforms. In 2004, voters will begin to see noticeable differences."
What kinds of improvements can voters expect? And did the multitude of studies arrive at any common conclusions? Norman Ornstein, an elections expert with the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington D.C., points out that while there are many ideas for reform, the common thread is money. "There's no question that the key to all of this is lots of money," he says.
Ornstein notes that elections are often overlooked at budget time. "Local officials have to decide if they are going to allocate the money to fill potholes or expand garbage collection or for voting reforms. Election administration has been on the deferred maintenance list for too long, and the repairs could be expensive," he says.
All of the reform studies took different approaches, yet they settled on some common recommendations. Ornstein, who led a working group for the Constitution Project, has reviewed all the reports and says there is a broad and clear consensus in several areas.
"There needs to be money so that you have modern equipment and can maintain it. States must centralize and update voter lists. There needs to be enough trained poll workers and machines to make sure that voting is not a 'root canal' experience for voters," he says.
Most of the reports encourage states to make provisional ballots available to all voters, develop a statewide voter registration database, improve voter education and poll worker training, and adopt clear definitions of what constitutes a vote. Several states moved quickly in these areas during 2001 sessions, and many discovered that their statutes are relatively sound and need only fine-tuning. Another repeated message from the national reports is that election administration should remain in the hands of state and local governments as the framers of the Constitution intended.
A STATE AND LOCAL ISSUE
"Most areas of election conduct are purely state and locally regulated," says Utah House Speaker Martin Stephens, who co-chaired the NCSL Election Reform Task Force. "Poll closings, ballot design and recount procedures are all matters that have historically been taken care of by state law and local regulation."
Ornstein agrees that a federal mandate approach would not work.
"The practical reality is that there will not be a swath of mandates. Given the long history of decentralization and the widely different cultures between states and localities, you would screw it up if you overmandated," he says.
The worst thing, Stephens says, would be for Congress to pass a "one size fits all" solution. But some help in funding election reform would be more than welcome. Replacing outdated voting machines will cost millions. While states are willing to step forward with some funding, an incentive grant program from Congress could guarantee that old voting technologies get relegated to the trash bin of history. Another expensive proposition could be developing a statewide voter database to prevent fraud and streamline the process for getting voters to their proper polling place on Election Day.
In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential race and the month-long saga in Florida, essentially every organization involved in elections vowed to study the problem and recommend solutions. In addition, many states launched task forces to scrutinize the election process.
NCSL's Elections Reform Task Force, co-chaired by Speaker Stephens, North Carolina Representative Dan Blue and Alfred Speer, clerk of the Louisiana House, came up with 36 specific recommendations for legislative action. They range from adopting clear recount provisions to placing resources into voter education and recruiting poll workers. Like many of the other studies, the NCSL report encourages states to adopt provisional balloting, which allows a voter to cast a ballot at the polling place even if there is a question about his or her eligibility. A review is done in the days following the election, and the ballot is counted if it turns out that the individual is qualified. This ensures that no voter is turned away from the polling place on Election Day. The report also calls on states to guarantee access to the secret ballot for all voters regardless of any disability.
The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, met in various presidential libraries across the country and offered 13 recommendations targeted at states and Congress. Its more controversial recommendation is to make Election Day a national holiday. It also calls for restoring the voting rights of convicted felons and having news organizations exercise restraint in predicting election outcomes.
The commission recommends that Congress go in 50/50 with states to add $300 million to $400 million to annual spending on election administration and to establish a new Election Administration Commission to create voting system standards and testing.
The Constitution Project, another bipartisan effort sponsored by Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute, calls for unity among all levels of government to reform the election process. The group's stance is that Election Day voting at polling places is the best opportunity to foster confidence in the democratic process and protect against fraud. It did not reach consensus on alternative voting methods, like mail-in balloting, but suggests that states make in-depth evaluations before moving more toward these alternatives.
The Georgetown project also suggests that states review their election codes, reduce partisan influence on election administration and, in an effort to increase participation, consider reducing the frequency of elections through better coordination and consolidation.
Most elections are run by counties, a fact keenly recognized by the National Association of Counties and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks. Their report firmly supports reforming the election process from within the present system rather than creating a new system or imposing nationwide procedures on state and local governments. Nationwide uniformity, according to the association of counties, would be impractical, stifle innovation for the future and increase unintended consequences.
The county report aims its recommendations specifically at each branch of government. Congress should offer one-time grants to help with the cost of upgrading registration and voting equipment, develop an ongoing funding program to share election costs and assist in the cost of mailing official election documents. The Federal Election Commission should have an increased role, and it needs to require broadcast media to run public service announcements to educate voters.
A list of recommendations for state and local governments concerns everything from registration to voter education and tracking statistics. But two are unique: restore voting rights to convicted felons in every state and clearly communicate those procedures. The report also urges states to institute ballot certification deadlines at least 60 days prior to Election Day. Unlike the Constitution Project, the county organizations recommend increasing the use of alternative voting methods in order to cut back on the need for poll workers.
In one of the most comprehensive studies of election technology, the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project looked at voting equipment across the country. Made up of researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the group measured error rates for each type of voting system. It found that between 4 million and 6 million votes were lost in the 2000 election. To ensure that every vote counts, project researchers recommend that punch cards and lever machines be upgraded to optical scanners. In addition, they believe states should improve voter registration by improving database management, linking registration databases and polling places, and using provisional ballots.
The Caltech/MIT report urges the federal government to fulfill a much needed role as the collector of data on voting equipment and systems. It suggests that the feds establish a national lab or program to foster development and testing of voting systems and a national program to field test all equipment and ballot formats.
Our election system is not completely broken, just in need of repairs, argues the National Task Force on Election Reform sponsored by the Election Center, a bipartisan group of state and local officials with vast experience in running elections. A complete overhaul, it believes, is not necessary and would actually undermine years of work.
"When one looks at America's election system, one cannot help but be impressed with how well it works, given the enormous complexity, the lack of resources and the extremely high expectations," its report states.
The state and local officials make 80 specific recommendations, from restoring the voting rights of convicted felons who have completed their sentence to a proposal that all states have a statewide central voter file or registry.
Though the Election Center report advocates that state and local governments remain election administrators, it also recommends that the federal government take a more active role in developing standards for conducting elections. These include development and maintenance of vote counting system standards and operational standards and guidelines.
IT WILL TAKE TIME
The 2002 primaries are just around the corner. As Americans return to the polls for the first elections for federal offices after the historic presidential race of 2000, states can expect intense media scrutiny on the election process. Voters in a few states like Florida will notice one obvious difference: Their old punch card machines will be gone. But many reforms will be invisible, such as better laws on voter intent and a better communications infrastructure for election officials to use to resolve disputes more efficiently.
Many states have yet to act, and comprehensive reforms will not be in place for several years. The 2002 legislative sessions will include numerous bills to improve the election process, and the many reports offer guidance to lawmakers reluctant to reinvent the proverbial wheel. A careful examination of the state election system as a whole gives legislatures the opportunity to make some long overdue changes.
"Legislators and lawmakers should take a more deliberate look at all the aspects of elections, the whole process, so that they can come up with something that's comprehensive and not just a scatter-brained approach," says Priest of Arkansas.
Tim Storey and Kate Rooney track election reforms for NCSL.
2001 STATE ELECTION REFORMS State legislatures went over their election laws with a fine-toothed comb last session, looking for wea spots and developing solutions. Reforming election laws is a complex job, and while more than 1,790 bills were introduced, only 266 passed. Some 433 are still pending as sessions start up again this month. ISSUE STATES THAT ENACTED NEW LAWS New voting equipment. Arizona, California, (*) Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota Ban on punch cards. Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Texas Registration--new or improved Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Oregon, centralized voter database. South Dakota Registration--improved list Georgia, Indina, Kansas, Louisiana, maintenance and purging Montana, Rhode Island, South Dakota, procedures Texas, Virginia, Washington Voter intent--does a hanging California, Florida, Missouri, (**) chad count as a vote? How Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia about a pregnant chad? Recount procedures. Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington Absentee voting procedures. California, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia Provisional ballots. Florida, Maryland, Vermont Poll workers--increased pay, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, training and recruitment. Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas Polling place and voting Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio, Utah machine accessibility for elderly and disabled voters. Voter education--the core California, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, issues are where and how to Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, register and vote. New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas Task forces, study commissions, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, interim committees on election Kentucky, Maryland, Montana, reform. Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia (*)Requires voter approval in March 2002 election. (**)Administrative rule.
RELATED ARTICLE: NCSL DEBATES ELECTION REFORM
Even before the occupant of the White House had been determined, NCSL President Jim Costa, state senator from California, was marshaling NCSL's resources to study election reform. Within a month, he and NCSL Staff Chair Diane Bolender of Iowa, had established the NCSL Elections Reform Task Force and charged it with three goals: helping restore confidence in the system, working with the federal government and providing states with recommendations for improving the election process.
Chaired by North Carolina Representative Dan Blue, Utah Speaker of the House Marty Stephens and Louisiana Clerk of the House Alfred Speer, the bipartisan group of 30 legislators and legislative staff had vast experience in the election field. The group decided that NCSL's lobbying efforts at the federal level should stress that elections must remain in the hands of state and local officials and that Congress must be careful with any mandated changes. Its recommendations to states are based on the premise that legislatures will review their elections codes and make changes based on their own culture and circumstances.
Like many of the other national reports, the NCSL report supports offering provisional ballots to anyone requesting to vote, developing statewide voter registration databases, and encouraging legislatures to find money to support voter education and poll worker training. It calls on states to guarantee that all polling places are accessible to all Americans regardless of disability. The report, which is on the NCSL Web site at www.ncsl.org, contains 50 state charts showing various election practices throughout the country and the group's specific recommendations.
INFORMATION ALL IN ONE PLACE
The sheer volume of advice on election reform is almost over-whelming. Recognizing the need to collect and organize the huge volume of material available from all the reports and studies of the past year, the Pew Charitable Trust created the Election Reform Information Project. It serves as a clearinghouse for information, data and analysis on election reform. Project Director Doug Chapin says the group will add "perspective to this information in order to give policymakers, the media and concerned citizens the latest information."
The project's Web site, www.electionline.org, is a one-stop-shopping source with links to all of the major election reform reports, along with daily news about developments.