Soon after passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, President Lyndon Johnson remarked, “voting is the first duty of a democracy.” Like President Johnson, Stephen Ansolabehere endorses the idea that voting is essential to a democracy. It is a measure of the troubles in our own democracy, then, that with so much at stake in the 2000 presidential election—control of the House and Senate, as well as the makeup of our nation’s judicial branch of government—millions of Americans were legally disenfranchised as a result of broken or malfunctioning voting machines. Ansolabehere argues that a solution to this disenfranchisement must preserve our current, highly decentralized system of conducting elections. I disagree. I think it is time for the federal government to allocate resources and fund the improvement of our electoral system in time for the next presidential election in 2004.
With weeks remaining in the 2001 election cycle, the two major political parties must prepare for statewide and local elections across the country. In many states and localities, Americans desiring to register and vote will continue to encounter a frustrating fragmentation of confusing ballot designs and faulty, antiquated voting machines. Without the proper, functioning, updated voting technology to help citizens navigate the political process, voting will become more and more confusing and intimidating. The results could be devastating to the American system of government as more voters opt to stay home rather than take time out of their busy lives to cast ballots.
As campaign manager for Al Gore in 2000, my responsibility on election day was simple: get out the vote in key, targeted battleground states. Thus, supporters of Gore and the Democratic ticket were called, canvassed, mailed, and pulled from their homes to vote in the 2000 elections. Once at their polling sites, many of these voters discovered that the lines were too long because of broken voting machines. Many citizens, running out of time to cast ballots, left in frustration. Ansolabehere’s examination of this kind of technological disfunction in state and local voting systems leads him to an important conclusion—that the federal government should fund new technological research to help make voting more accessible and reliable for all citizens. But he does not give enough weight to the federal role.
According to recent studies by Ansolabehere and the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, the “disappearance” of legally cast votes has been going on for years. While state and local officials must, as Ansolabehere argues, retain their position in administering elections, the “Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act” introduced in Congress by Representative John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Senator Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), would establish uniform standards for voting machines. This legislation, which is scheduled for debate in the Senate, would signficantly enhance, (if not revolutionize), the way most Americans are able to cast their ballots. Unless the federal government takes a leadership role in providing resources to help improve the technology, most states will find it hard to improve their voting systems. While the right to vote and be counted varies from state-to-state and locality-to-locality based on state and local laws, a uniform standard of voting systems will enhance voter autonomy and give every American equal access to the ballot box.
Thus, the goal of improving voting systems must be to give every citizen a decent chance of having his or her vote counted and tabulated, in order to impact the results of the election. The right to vote and be counted should not and cannot be left to state and local governments alone. The federal government must ensure the enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights laws across America, and not only in selected states and jurisdictions.
Recently, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) Elections Reform Task Force released its report on the best voting practices in the states, as well as a series of recommendations to improve voting in America. In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential elections and the chaos in Florida, over 1,700 election reform bills were introduced in the states. To date, only three states have passed comprehensive election reform ranging from updating voting technology to providing provisional ballots. Seven states now have laws to address uniform standards for voting machines. While Ansolabehere contends that uniform voting technology may not improve the efficiency of the counting of those ballots, the NCSL recommends that states should “adopt uniform standards for maintenance, operation, counting (including what constitutes a vote), security, verification, accuracy, and ballot design for each type of voting system used in a state.” The intent here is to adopt uniform standards on the state-wide level not only to comply withBush v. Gore, but also to improve the administration of elections across the country.
I believe that the new architecture envisioned by the Voting Technology Project will provide citizens with the tools necessary to give them a voice and a vote in the electoral process. Citizens will be able to review their choices, make changes if necessary, and cast their ballots. It thus enhances every voter’s ability to cast his or her ballot and have it counted. But to take full advantage of it, the federal government should help fund this initiative and give states the ability to adopt such a system—if it meets the minimal federal standards for a uniform voting system.
The stakes in the 2002 congressional elections will be extremely high. Many citizens eligible to vote will once again drag themselves to the polls to cast their ballots. This time, the federal government should intervene to ensure that all Americans have access to a properly functioning voting system that accurately records their preferences. The United States cannot afford to fail its citizens again. Voting is the foundation of our democracy. The first step in ensuring the stability of that foundation is for the federal government to make sure the machines are working properly in the upcoming elections.