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Thirty Six Days of Uncertainty



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The Florida debacle showed that the conduct of elections, even in an established democracy such as the United States, is not a perfect process.  Florida put a spotlight on problems that election officials across the country have been grappling with for years.  States and localities have considered and implemented a broad range of improvements to voting systems and procedures.  Congress passed and the President signed significant election reform legislation, but the measure must stil be backed up with funding.

Nov. 7, 2003 -"One Year Out" by Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD)
President Bush Signs Election Reform Bill
On October 29, 2002 President George W. Bush signed into law the Help America Vote Act (H.R. 3295), legislation which took nearly two years in the making.  The election reform effort had appeared stalled until problems in the September 10 Florida primary shook the House-Senate conference into action; they announced a compromise on October 4.  On October 10 the U.S. House voted 357 to 48 to agree to the conference report; six days later, the U.S. Senate followed in a 92 to 2 vote.  The Help American Vote Act will provide $865 million immediately and an additional $3 billion over the next three years.

American elections have historically been marked by low turnout.  Just 50 to 55 percent of the voting age population has voted in the past eight presidential elections.  One of the most surprising facts to emerge from the 2000 election is that hundreds of thousands of voters who actually do go to the polls do not have their votes counted.  According to the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology report, faulty equipment and confusing ballot design led to an estimated 1.5 million votes for president in the November 2000 election not being counted.  Problems with registration, polling places, and absentee ballots prevented several million more eligible voters from voting or having their votes counted.

Proposals for reform have come from many directions including the states, Congress, election officials, interested organizations and academics.  In general, analysis and recommendations have focused on three areas: people, technology, and procedures and law.  A second analytical dimension is to look at the time frame in which problems arise: pre-election, Election Day, and after the polls close.  Another parameter to consider is money: where is it going to come from, what is it to be used for and what sorts of strings will be attached, and will it arrive in time to make improvements for the 2002 elections? 

Because of the seriousness of the problem, one outcome of the Florida fiasco could be the first ever federal investment in running American elections.  The element of reform that has attracted the most attention is the need to update voting equipment and systems.  In the aftermath of Florida, punchcard systems were tagged as an antiquated, failed system, while new technologies such as touch screen voting (and even, some suggested, internet voting) offered a glamorous appeal.  However, such systems entail considerable expense and have problems of their own.  Further, election officials emphasize that the people side of the equation is equally important and that poll worker recruitment and training and voter education likewise require increased resources.

Considering the multitude of entities involved in running elections, including secretaries of state (in charge of administering election laws), and/or state election boards, county clerks, poll workers, and of course the voters, there is general agreement that a one-size-fits-all quick fix will not be possible.  Voting equipment and election procedures vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction; a system that is appropriate for a sparsely populated rural county may be completely unsuited for use in a major city.

For example, Los Angeles County, the largest electoral jurisdiction in the United States, currently uses the punch card system.  Conny B. McCormack, Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk, favors moving to a touch screen system, which would cost an estimated $100 million.  McCormack argues that the optical scanning systems, which use large Scantron-like forms with the candidates' names printed on them, would require an unwieldy mass of paper to meet the different ballot permutations in the county's 4,963 precincts and that each ballot would cost considerably more than the seven cents required for punch cards. 

The issue of "election reform" can be framed in different ways.  Conservatives often focus on the need to discourage fraud, while liberals may view such efforts as having the effect of discouraging voters.  Some view election reform as civil rights issue, arguing that problems with the elections process have disproportionately affected minority communities.  Third parties see ballot access as a priority.  The Greens are seeking to advance instant runoff voting, a form of preference voting under which, if no candidate gains a majority, voter preferences would be reallocated among the two leading candidates.  IRV would be an antidote to the "wasted vote" syndrome that faces minor party candidates.  At the presidential level, election reform can encompass such areas as uniform poll closing, access to the debates, abolition of the Electoral College, improving voter turnout, and even campaign finance reform.  However, the thrust of current debate at the federal level has focused on the need to ensure that each and every valid vote cast is counted.
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Election Night Coverage


Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action

"Arial,Helvetica">Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action