Momentum Builds For Election Reform

Nearly five years after the chaos of Election 2000, angry citizens still storm Capitol Hill and statehouses to demand investigations and changes to the electoral process while task forces continue to churn out recommendations for reform.

Congress did pass the Help America Vote Act in 2002, and it did appropriate $3 billion to improve the system.

Then came Election 2004, which was marred by delays, discarded ballots, mixed up identifications, allegations of electronic voting machine chicanery and other problems, all of which have spawned an industry of election-reform experts and lobbying groups.

Dozens of states have approved or are considering proposals for change. But some independent experts complain that many proposals are driven by a desire for partisan advantage, and they fear that nothing significant will be accomplished without mandating nonpartisan election administration.

At the federal level, there remains disagreement, and reform advocates argue that if nothing is done this year, next year’s congressional elections, with one-third of the Senate and the entire House up for re-election, could take place in an atmosphere of suspicion and a worrisome lack of voter participation.

A task force of state and local election officials has released a 72-page list of recommendations that envisioned scrapping neighborhood precincts and the quadrennial first-Tuesday-in-November Election Day. “Vote centers” would be set up where voters could cast ballots over a period of weeks.

In mid-September a national commission headed by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker is to offer its suggestions.

Lobbyists spread out over Capitol Hill this week urging lawmakers to require that all electronic voting machines produce a piece of paper that voters and auditors can check to make sure ballots have been properly cast and counted.

Of more than a dozen proposals pending in Congress, assuring a paper trail appears to be the most popular and likely to pass.

David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, told the Carter-Baker commission in April that paperless ballots mean voters “have no means to confirm that the machines have recorded their votes correctly, nor will they have any assurance of that their votes won’t be changed later.” Others say mandating paper trails would be costly and unnecessary because computers can reliably record transactions.

Some national changes are on the way. Under the Help America Vote Act, by January all 50 states must have computerized databases of registered voters. But a survey by electionline,org, a nonpartisan Web site, said that every state’s database will be different and that some will be fine, others will be shaky, still others won’t be ready.

States that use voting machines also are supposed to have clear technological and accessibility standards in place by January. But enormous problems remain there, too.

New York state, for instance, still uses mechanical machines that haven’t been manufactured for two decades. They often break down and must be cannibalized for parts.

The federal government has said it will send New York $154 million for new machines, but state legislators so far have been unable to agree on which ones to buy. Some want traditional optical scanners, some want image scanners, others want touch screens.

The report by the National Association of Election Officials said the 2002 federal law is underfunded and its reforms far behind schedule. It predicted “substantial difficulty” meeting the January deadlines.