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A good idea for election reform

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Florida's presidential election debacle last year was not a pretty sight in the world's greatest democracy _ confusing ballots, antiquated voting machines, ill-prepared voters, poorly staffed polling places and inaccurate voter registration lists that disenfranchised thousands of voters, especially in predominantly minority precincts. Since then, we have learned that these problems are not limited to Florida. Illinois, for example, tossed out more spoiled ballots last November than Florida (you didn't hear much about that in the news), and many of the problems that focused world attention on Florida's ragged voting system can be found in other states.

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature enacted an election reform bill that addresses many of problems that made the state an object of ridicule and political cheap shots and gave Democratic politicians a rallying cry for next year's elections. After months of partisan spin on what's broken and how to fix it, we would do well to tune out the political debate over election reform _ both parties are driven by self-interest _ and listen to some thoughtful analysts who have examined the issue and come up with some constructive suggestions for comprehensive reform. One clear-headed observer is Thomas Mann, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution, a left-of-center Washington think-tank.

Mann warns against seeking a federal solution to a problem that is and should remain primarily a state and local responsibility. For its part, Mann writes in a recent paper, the federal government should create a new independent agency to assist states with developing "a reliable body of knowledge about the performance of voting equipment, the impact of election laws, and the efficacy of alternative approaches to the administration of elections."

The federal government's highest priority, he says, should be to assist states in developing accurate electronic voter registration databases. "Registration rolls are a mess in many states and counties, with error rates as high as 25 percent or more," Mann writes. "Listings for registrants who move out of the jurisdiction, die or become ineligible for some other reason are often not removed in a timely fashion. This increases the risk of fraud. On the other hand, as we saw in Florida in 2000, efforts to purge the rolls of ineligible voters can lead to the erroneous removal of qualified voters. Long lines and confusion at polling places and disenfranchised voters are the result."

As counties and states scramble to modernize their election systems, Mann also cautions against putting too much faith in new technology, whether it be touch-screen machines or Internet voting. Replacing outdated, error-prone voting machines is an important part of the solution, but technology alone is not going to make everything right. "Simply replacing equipment with newer technologies offers no guarantee of error-free casting and counting of ballots," he writes, adding that mistakes made by voters account for a substantial portion of spoiled ballots and other errors on Election Day.

Voting equipment, he says, must be selected "with an eye toward the special needs of localities, such as multiple languages and lengthy ballots. Precinct scanning of optical scan forms and ballot review for electronic machines, which allow voters to see if their ballots are properly marked, should be considered an essential feature when acquiring new voting systems. And serious attention must be paid to designing ballots, providing access to disabled citizens and developing procedures that help citizens properly utilize the voting equipment."

Another complication is the change in voting procedures, particularly what he calls "remote voting over an extended period of time," intended to make voting more convenient. For example, he notes that Oregon now conducts its elections entirely by mail, and the state of Washington, with its liberal policy on absentee voting, appears headed in the same direction. The assumption that making voting easier will increase turnout is not supported by the evidence available so far, Mann says.

He writes: "There are costs associated with these newer forms of mail and early voting: the loss of a shared community experience; the irrevelance of late-breaking campaign events; the threat to privacy provided by secret ballots at polling places; the risks of vote buying and selling; and complications for the timely counting of ballots. Remote Internet voting from home or work incurs these costs and many additional ones. As summarized by the recent Internet Policy Institute report of a workshop sponsored by the National Science Foundation, "Remote Internet voting systems pose significant risk to the integrity of the voting process, and should not be fielded for use in public elections until substantial technical and social science issues are resolved.' "

Mann says, "states would be well advised to slow this rush toward new voting procedures and instead invest in making Election Day precinct voting more accessible and user-friendly. That means more polling places, more convenient locations, additional and better-trained poll workers, electronic links to central voter registration files, clearer instructions to voters and longer hours for those whose work schedule permits only very early or late voting."

Mann's recommendations make sense to me. He has not been seduced by technology and other quick fixes, or compromised by partisan bias. Election officials in Florida and other states should slow down and consider his recommendations. Let's reform our election process, but let's do it right.