Thirty Six Days of Uncertainty
Nov. 7, 2003 -"One Year Out" by Reps. Bob Ney (R-OH) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD)
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
Copyright 2000, 2001, 2002 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action