Election reform: what's next?
Broward and Miami-Date counties weren't alone. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, poll workers ran into similar problems with new voting machines on primary election day.
In marked contrast, Georgia put new electronic voting systems into every precinct in 2002 and, thanks to a comprehensive, statewide implementation plan that covered every aspect of elections from ballot design and machine testing to poll worker training and voter outreach, voters experienced few problems.
Just two years earlier, election officials across the country acknowledged that Florida's troubles could have happened almost anywhere. In 2002, they saw in Florida a different but no less disturbing picture: the attempt to fix problems gave rise to a new set of problems. They saw the difference that effective implementation of election reform can make.
Passage of the Help America Vote Act
With the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which establishes new requirements for voting systems and the conduct of elections, every state will now face the same challenges that Florida, Maryland and Georgia confronted in the last election.
HAVA, approved by Congress in October, authorizes $3.9 billion for federal grants to help states meet the new requirements and creation of a federal agency to oversee the process. Now it's up to the states and localities to use these resources to address the problems revealed in 2000. How they carry out the new law--from the details of purchasing agreements for new voting machines to the content of the poll worker training manuals to the organization of the polling place--will make the difference between success and further erosion of voter confidence in the democratic process.
Despite the strong consensus in favor of Congressional action on election reform, the road to legislation was not an easy one. Congress was entering uncharted territory: for the first time, the federal government was contemplating setting nationwide standards for voting systems and election administration. Disagreement over the details of those requirements--most notably the requirement aimed at preventing possible vote fraud--and over how the new federal election agency would administer the law threatened to derail the reform effort. But, in the end, legislators kept their pledge to do what they could to ensure the events of November 2000 are not repeated.
Assessments of the potential impact of HAVA vary. The authorization of substantial federal funds as well as the creation of a new commission mark a historic increase in federal involvement in elections. In establishing "uniform and non-discriminatory" requirements for all federal elections, Congress has put its stamp on key components of the elections process that will affect what happens before, during and after an election. How the new systems and procedures will actually work is in the hands of state and local election officials.
The law is long and covers a wide array of topics ranging from military and overseas voting to the recruitment of students as poll workers. At its core, however, are new federal standards for voting systems, for registration and for polling place procedures. By making states accountable for implementing the new standards, the law will require state and local election officials to increase both coordination and cooperation.
League Conference on Issues Emerging from Federal Election Reform
In November 2002, the League of Women Voters and the McCormick Tribune Foundation sponsored a conference bringing together state and local election officials, congressional staffers, voting fights advocates and election experts to map out a course for implementing HAVA.
The participants--all of whom had worked intensively on election reform over the past two years--discussed what the law is supposed to do and the challenges it presents. The conference allowed interested parties from different "election communities," each with a stake in improving the election system, to shift from the legislative process, a process marked by contentious debate, to the next phase.
Beyond a discussion of nuts and bolts, the conference provided a rare and valuable opportunity for stakeholders to share and discuss ideas freely and work toward a collective vision of how the new law could revitalize our elections.
New Federal Standards for Voting Systems
Under the new law, voting systems will be required to have the following features: (1) they must allow the voter to review the ballot and correct errors; (2) they must be able to produce a paper audit: (3) they must be accessible to voters with disabilities (this requirement can be met by providing one accessible electronic voting machine per polling place); (4) they must be able to handle multi-lingual ballots; and (5) they must not exceed the machine error rate established by the Federal Election Commission.
States will be eligible for "requirements payments" over the next 'three years to help them meet these and other requirements. The new law also authorizes an immediate infusion of $325 million to replace punch card and lever voting systems.
States and jurisdictions will make decisions based on their own specific problems and needs. Florida sought to solve its punch card problem with new electronic voting systems--a very expensive solution that, as voters discovered in the primary election, comes with a new set of problems. Los Angeles County, which must replace its punch card system by 2004 under California law, has chosen instead to lease optical scan equipment. The size of the county made the purchase of electronic equipment unfeasible.
As states and localities make decisions about how to use the funds to meet the new standards, a number of issues face them.
* Should they move to a uniform, statewide system in which voters use the same technology in every polling place?
* Should they meet the requirement for disability access by purchasing one accessible machine for each polling place or replace all their old systems with new accessible systems?
* Are jurisdictions better off replacing old systems immediately or waiting for a later generation of voting systems that will have the benefit of guidance on the new standards?
New Federal Standards for Voter Registration
According to the U.S. Census, 7.4 percent of forty million registered voters did not vote in 2000 because of registration problems. In one of the most significant provisions of the new law, states will be required to create a single, uniform, official, centralized, computerized, interactive statewide voter registration list." In a departure from tradition, the state, not the locality, will be responsible for voter registration lists; accordingly, the state list, not the county list, will determine who is eligible to vote in federal elections.
Under the new law, states will have federal authority to link voter registration databases to motor vehicle and other state agencies required to offer voter registration under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The statewide list will also help remove duplicate registrations. Michigan, for example, was able to remove 600,000 duplicate registrations when it moved to a statewide system.
The new registration system also brings changes for voters. Those wishing to register to vote must provide either a driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number after the statewide computerized list is up and running. For eligible applicants who have neither of these numbers, the state is to assign a unique identifier (number).
As states take up the challenge of revamping registration to comply with the new requirements, we can expect controversy over the following questions:
* How will the state ensure uniform and nondiscriminatory procedures throughout the state?
* How will the state protect the privacy of voter information as it is transmitted among agencies?
* Will the state link the registration database electronically to state agencies that accept voter registration applications?
Answers to these questions will determine whether the new statewide lists improve the system or introduce the potential for eligible voters to be erroneously denied the right to vote.
New Federal Standards for the Polling Place
When Congress set rules for polling place procedures, it was breaking new ground; the details of election administration have traditionally been the province of states and localities. It did so with the backing of every national task force, panel and commission on election reform, which unanimously called for new protections to safeguard the rights of eligible voters.
In response to this call, the new law requires states to offer provisional ballots starting in 2004 to voters whose names are not on the rolls or whose eligibility is challenged; the ballots are counted once the voter's eligibility is confirmed. In the long term, the statewide registration system should reduce the need for provisional ballots. In the meantime, provisional ballots will protect voters against registration errors.
There was no such consensus for another procedural change: a requirement that first-time voters who register by mail provide identification at the polling place or send a copy along with their absentee ballot. Indeed, this measure generated more controversy than any other provision in the bill. The civil rights community strenuously opposed the provision on the grounds that it would disenfranchise poor and minority voters who may not have a driver's license or other proper identification and that it opens the door to discriminatory application by poll workers.
One often overlooked provision that could substantially improve election day operations is the requirement to post "voter information" at polling places, including instructions for voting, poll hours, sample ballots and voters' rights. This information will help not only voters but also poll workers who will be coping with new machines and regulations.
As state legislatures try to bring state law into conformity with the new federal law, we can expect the following issues to generate heat:
* What standards will determine which provisional ballots get counted? How will the state ensure the standards are applied uniformly statewide?
* According to the new federal law, voters without proper ID can vote a provisional ballot. States will have to decide how to verify the identity or eligibility of those voters after election day.
* If a provisional ballot is cast in the "incorrect" precinct, will the portion of the ballot on which the voter was qualified to vote still be counted, such as a vote for President or U.S. Senator?
An Unprecedented Opportunity
The Help America Vote Act, by establishing new standards and giving states the resources to meet them, holds out the promise of remedying some of the long-standing problems plaguing our election system. It also offers an unprecedented opportunity for state and local governments. This infusion of substantial federal funds will give states the means to make long-term investments in the infrastructure of our elections. State and local Leagues can and should be part of decision making that will shape the future of elections, and indeed, the law invites their participation. (see "What you can do" on page 11).
First things first, however: Congress must appropriate the necessary funds. Some of the most important changes required by the new law such as creating a statewide registration system and improving accessibility for voters with disabilities require substantial investment. Given the dire fiscal straits in which most states now find themselves, these changes will not happen without federal money. Having passed the bill with broad bipartisan support, Congress must follow through with funding. And the states must use that funding wisely.
There is a danger that purchase of expensive new voting machines will consume most of the funding leaving little or nothing left for improvements in voter education, poll worker training or statewide computerized voter lists. States have an obligation to weigh the needs of jurisdictions and the state as a whole, and to consider using these funds to invest in the infrastructure of elections.
Beyond giving states the means to comply with the new requirements, the infusion of federal money will allow states to invest in the health of elections over the long term. For example, states might put the federal funds into a revolving fund that would allow the interest on loans to the localities to be used to fund future improvements.
To foster forward-thinking implementation, the law requires states to produce a state plan before they can receive funding. In this way, states are encouraged to consider both current needs and future priorities and draw a map for getting there. Ideally, the planning process will include a discussion of how the state can sustain a viable elections process into the future. For many states, this will likely be the first time such a discussion has ever taken place.
While the law requires that states publish and seek public comment on the plans, they can do more by including all stakeholders in the planning process. The conference cosponsored by the League and the McCormick Tribune Foundation offers a model for consensus building through open, constructive discussion.
A model state plan will include the specifics of how the state intends to meet the new requirements (and minimize risks) in the context of a plan to strengthen the infrastructure of elections. Purchasing new equipment and passing new laws without a sound infrastructure for carrying out the changes led to disaster in the 2002 primaries. Taking heed from this painful lesson, states should decide how the state and local governments will work together to carry out the plan, how the state will address the needs of the elections workforce, and how the state will meet the needs of the voter.
Improving Coordination between States and Localities
Fireworks between the Florida secretary of state and the counties sparked by the 2002 primary elections reflected inter-governmental tensions that are not unique to Florida. Decentralized elections often produce conflict between states and localities. HAVA has the potential to profoundly alter this relationship; at a minimum the new law will require closer coordination between the two levels of government.
Notably, the federal grants will go to the states and not the localities, even though, traditionally, local governments have borne the financial burden of running elections. In 19 states, localities receive no funding from the state for elections. In hammering out the details of how the funds will be disbursed to localities--details such as local funding matches and audits-the state planning committee will be working to forge a new relationship between the state and localities.
The state's planning process, which requires state officials to work with election officials from the two largest jurisdictions, may prompt a broader examination of the division of responsibility and how the two levels of government work together. The state will be required to take on new responsibilities in voter registration; it may take on additional responsibilities in other areas such as poll worker training, the purchase of voting systems or ballot design, among others.
These issues will come to the fore as state legislatures take up election reform bills in the 2003 legislative sessions. In the past, reforms proposed by state election authorities were frequently blocked by the counties and cities. It is vital that the groundwork for a cooperative relationship between states and localities be laid early on to prevent such disagreements from impeding effective implementation.
Revitalizing the Election Workforce
The 2002 Florida primary election revealed one of the most troubling vulnerabilities of our election system: strains on the elections workforce on which all polling place operations depend. This resource will be strained further as states are challenged to meet the new federal requirements.
Polling place elections rely on a vast army of volunteer or low-wage workers, most of whom are retired, to staff the polls on election day. For these workers, the day is long and the pay negligible. And the job is about to get harder. Poll workers will have to learn new procedures and new technology. The 2002 elections have already shown us the toll this can take. In Los Angeles County, California, 400 election workers quit just prior to an election. In Broward County, Florida, hundreds of poll workers quit after the disastrous 2002 primary.
Some states may be tempted to take the approach Oregon has taken and convert to a vote-by-mail system. To keep election day voting viable, states and localities need to rethink how they recruit, train and deploy poll workers. Election officials need to identify new pools for recruitment.
In some Florida counties that replaced punch card systems prior to 2002, intensive training of poll workers made the difference between success and disaster. Georgia, which had set itself the monumental task of moving to a uniform statewide system of electronic voting systems, experienced few difficulties, at least in part because the state took responsibility for training poll workers. Currently very few states have any role in poll worker training, but that may change as states take more responsibility for ensuring uniformity across county lines.
As election officials look ahead to the challenge of training poll workers to use new equipment and administer new procedures, they can benefit from more sophisticated learning techniques. For example, many poll workers may be able to forgo in-person workshops for web-based training.
Reorganizing the polling place or restructuring election day operations can lessen the demands made on poll workers. Split shifts for poll workers, early voting, and rethinking the division of labor can ease the strain on this army of workers and possibly make the task of recruitment easier. Election officials may look for ways to reduce the administrative burden on poll workers by performing some administrative tasks prior to election day.
Forging a New Compact with the Voter
Effective implementation of HAVA must include voter education. All the new equipment and all the procedures will come to naught if voters don't have the information they need to participate.
The 2004 elections will see many changes. Voters may have to bring identification with them to the polls for the first time. They may be voting on new equipment or they may be voting by mail for the first time. They may be voting at a new, accessible precinct. Voters will need to know and understand the changes prior to election day.
Voter education covers but need not be limited to instructions on how to register, what is on the ballot, and how to operate the voting system. Providing information on candidates and issues and on the voting process itself can boost turnout.
A recent study found a measurable increase in voter turnout when voters were given information prior to the election. Raymond E. Wolfinger and Megan Mullin, University of California at Berkeley, and Benjamin Highton, University of California at Davis, found that providing voters with sample ballots prior to the election can increase turnout among voters without a high school degree by 4.3 percent. Providing voters with polling place information can increase turnout among the same voters by 2.7 percent. The conclusion: information can mobilize voters to participate.
Election officials and organizations involved in voter mobilization efforts, both of which suffer from insufficient time and money, can maximize their resources by working together. Election officials and civic and political organizations will need to coordinate their efforts to ensure that voters receive accurate information.
As election officials and state legislators confront the task before them, state and local Leagues can provide leadership by helping to set the agenda for effective implementation. Indeed, no organization is better positioned than the League of Women Voters to bring together state legislators, election officials and other civic organizations in a collaborative effort. The League is poised to play a central role in making sure the disasters of 2000 and 2002 are not repeated and that our elections become a standard for other democracies.
RELATED ARTICLE: WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Although full implementation of all the features of the federal law will evolve over several years many of the most important policy and financial decisions will be made in the next three years by state and local governments. Therefore, it is vitally important for state and local Leagues to play a role in shaping those decisions in the best interests of the citizens and their jurisdictions. Leagues can do this by:
* Learning all you can about the new law.
* Trying to gin official representation on the planning committee that each state's election official must establish to develop the state's implementation plan.
* Providing formal and informal input to both the state election agency and the state legislature on the state plan and related laws. policles and procedures. The new law requires states to provide a public comment process on the plans themselves.
* Providing advice and counsel of local election entities.
* Being particularly attentive to ways the League can assist with poll worker recruitment, poll worker training and vote education--areas of League expertise and where adequate funding and attention are likely to be insufficient.
* Staying alert to the various conforming laws that most state legislature will need to pass.
* Reaching out to election offcials to coordinate voter education efforts.
Tracy Warren is director, Election Reform Initiative, The Constitution Project
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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