The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which we had the honor of chairing with former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, has been fortunate to work with Stephen Ansolabehere and his colleagues at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project in the course of developing our Commission’s recommendations. As one would expect, the analysis and technological findings of the Caltech/MIT Project are first-rate and should serve as a foundation for the meaningful reform of our nation’s electoral processes.
Ansolabehere is sadly correct in his claim that “America’s voting technologies are…gravely inefficient and unreliable.” This spring and summer, our commission held four public hearings and talked to hundreds of voting administrators, experts, and citizens across the country. We heard again and again that despite the well-meaning efforts of election administrators, they simply have not been given the attention and resources they need to assure the American people that our democratic process is fundamentally fair and accurate for all citizens.
He is also correct in saying that the essence of any reform of our electoral process should respect “decentralization and diversity,” within the context of equality and voter autonomy. It is not only possible, but also preferable, for America to have an electoral system with a limited but responsible partnership between the federal government and the state and local authorities that run the process year in and year out. Such a partnership would still allow local jurisdictions to tailor and improve their voting processes according to the needs of their citizens. Uniform voting technology on the other hand, would not only violate the traditions of federalism and disrupt the historical evolution of our electoral processes, but it would also do harm to the present needs of many jurisdictions and the future development of new and better voting technologies.
In our bipartisan Commission’s report released last month, we recommended that the federal government provide long-overdue financial support in a revolving fund of 1 to 2 billion dollars over ten years, which in turn would provide matching capital grants for states to distribute to local jurisdictions to improve their systems. The federal government should set policy objectives while leaving the choice of strategies to the states. These policy objectives include: a statewide voter registration system; provisional balloting; a uniform statewide benchmark for voting system performance; compliance with or development of voting system standards and certification processes that allow voters to correct errors and that give physically disabled voters opportunities to cast secret ballots; adoption of a uniform standard in each state for what constitutes a vote within each category of voting system certified for use; and evaluation to ensure state and local compliance with federal voting rights statutes.
Within this framework, federal investment in state and county election administration—in return for the ability to set standards and test voting machines—is a vital first step on the path of reform. We, too, recommend that voting systems should have the following: a documentary audit; procedures for certification and decertification of both hardware and software; assessment of human usability, particularly that which allows voters with physical disabilities to cast a secret ballot; and operational guidelines for proper use and maintenance of equipment. It is also vital that a federal agency serve as a clearinghouse for information on equipment use and that local jurisdictions be required to report their electoral error rates.
This standard-setting must be done in consultation with state and local officials. Additionally, states should be given the opportunity to develop, test, and certify their own voting systems in lieu of participating in the federal program if they believe that they have better methods for reaching minimal error rates.
As Ansolabehere effectively argues, choosing one voting technology for the country would not be desirable for our voting processes. Similarly, the effort to eliminate a single technology—most recently punch card voting—would not be helpful. While each technology has its own strengths and weaknesses, certain regions and cities have chosen to invest and educate their voters in the use of particular systems. We have found, in Los Angeles County for instance, that punch cards may be the best, if not the only, cost-effective system to suit the county’s needs. With active voter education and poll-worker training, punch card devices can produce roughly the same residual error rates as other machines. Finally, if Congress chooses to spend its money and political will on just replacing punch card machines, an opportunity for more comprehensive and effective reform will have been lost.
However, updating and creating standards for voting technology is only one piece of meaningful reform. The Caltech/MIT Project’s findings also show that our nation’s voter registration process potentially “lost” as many votes as did bad technology. This occurs because many jurisdictions’ voter registration rolls are overrun with duplicate and/or bad names, and efforts to “scrub” these lists can have the unacceptable result of accidentally removing eligible voters from the rolls. The use of a statewide voter registration database and provisional ballots can greatly reduce these problems. The implementation of those administrative measures in combination with increased voter education, enforcement of the voting rights laws, and improvement of the voting process for overseas and military voters will greatly enhance our nation’s democratic process.
In the final analysis we hope that Congress finds compromise between the deviations in our respective recommendations and, most importantly, sets aside partisan politics to use the long-overdue focus on our electoral process caused by the 2000 election to pass the meaningful reforms that American voters desire and deserve.