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Election reforms mean more than replacing machines - Political Professional

The 2000 post Election Day dispute in Florida left many believing there must be better ways to manage the electoral process. Congress responded with the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which authorized $3 billion to help states meet new minimum requirements for conducting federal elections.

Election reforms mean more than replacing machines - Political ProfessionalTo receive this money, states had to submit a plan describing how they will implement the law. The plans, now available to the public, are as illuminating for what they leave out as for what they contain. The states have focused on technology as a solution to election ills at the expense of equally necessary administrative changes.

While the plans generally offer plenty of information on purchasing voting systems and computerized registration systems, they are extremely short on important details. Most plans contain only cursory answers to questions, such as how states will educate voters to use the new systems, how they will ensure machine security, how they will recruit and train competent Election Day workers to manage the systems, how they will administer the new polling place procedures, and how they will ensure that localities apply the law uniformly.

Recent major Failures in the electoral process highlight the imperative for modern voting equipment. The spectacle of local canvassing judges eye-balling punch card ballots in Palm Beach in 2000 is enough to convince anyone that there are better ways to count ballots. The fact that between one and a halt million to three million voters were unable to vote because of problems with registration demonstrates the need for statewide computerized voting lists and a fail-safe mechanism for eligible voters on Election Day, both of which are now required under HAVA.

Yet, technology alone cannot solve these problems. Implementing the law will require states to rethink voter education, training for election officials, and administrative practices in key areas.

The following recommendations may lack the glamour of state-of-the art database technology or touch-screen voting systems, but they are no less critical to the success of elections. States that neglect these critical components of election administration risk a repeat of the Florida debacle closer to home.

Need for Voter Education

HAVA requires that by 2006 each voting system notify the voter if he or she has voted for more than one candidate (an over-vote), allow the voter to review the ballot before casting, and correct it if there are errors. This provision aims to prevent a recurrence of what happened in Palm Beach when confusion created by the butterfly ballot design led voters to cast votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan that even he admitted must have been the result of voter error.

If these votes had been accurately recorded, Gore may well have won Florida after all the votes were counted. In counties with optical scan ballots, voters filled in the oval for their candidates and then wrote in the same candidates, an over-vote that was corrected only in a hand recount. (Machines that ask voters if they intended to vote twice for the same candidate still do not prevent over-votes.)

New voting systems will help prevent voter error. However, they are only a part of the solution. Moreover, many factors lead to voter error: Long lines, unfamiliarity with different machines, the infrequency of voting, poor eyesight and poor instructions.

Election officials have the ability, and indeed the responsibility, to compensate for these factors with better voter education. Most state plans, however, offer scant details in their discussion of voter education efforts.

Rather, the states appear poised to rely solely on voting devices to ensure election integrity.

HAVA requires election officials to post information at each polling place on Election Day, including sample ballots, information on voting systems, instructions for casting a provisional ballot, and the rights of voters under federal and state law: This minimum standard falls far short of what is needed to help America vote.

A critical component of voter education takes place before Election Day. People need to know and election officials need to publicize when and where citizens can register, how they can get absentee ballots, and where and how to exercise the right to vote on Election Day. The state should provide multiple sources of voting information and publicize this information where citizens are most likely to see it.

In California and other states, voters receive a sample ballot prior to Election Day. Imagine what the outcome in Palm Beach in 2000 might have been had there been sample ballots available to voters before they cast their ballots and clear directions on the balloting process. The state, the county and the political party whose voters were confused (and it could happen to any party) could all be accused of failing the voters in Palm Beach by not providing such information. A simple sample ballot telling voters where to find candidates Bush and Gore, punch positions three and five respectively, could have made a world of difference in that election.

Voters must be taught about the complete process for casting a vote. Too often, election officials assume a familiarity with the voting systems that doesn't exist. No voting system is completely intuitive. Instructions should be available at the polling place in a format that is easily accessible and understood. Taping a page of instructions in small type on the back wall of the polling place is not sufficient; the voter should not have to hunt for the information. In Chicago, a TV monitor plays video instructions on the voting process.

On Election Day, the primary responsibility for voter education falls to Election Day workers. These workers must be fully trained to assist voters at each stage of the process.

Resolve Registration Problems Before Election Day

The best database system that money can buy will not make up for poor administration. Michigan has a model registration system, yet when one locality failed to do the work necessary to update records, voters had problems on Election Day.

State election officials must take the initiative well before the election to ensure that voters who register at sites other than the registrar's office are added to the voter lists. The state election authority has a duty to inform voters when and why their applications have not been accepted.

Under HAVA, if a voter fails to answer the question regarding citizenship and age, the election official must find a way to inform the voter that the registration is incomplete. When voters, who clearly intend to register, make such errors on the application form, election officials have a responsibility to inform them of their mistake and give them the opportunity to correct it. Now that states have responsibility for the registration list, this task should not be delegated to localities.

Remove Barriers to Voting

Procedures for registering voters and verifying eligibility should not serve as barriers to the voting process for eligible voters. In Alaska, if a voter shows up without required identification, the state will verify the voter's identity after Election Day using information provided by the voter and matching it against state records. If there is no matching record, the state will match the voter's signature given at the polling place with the signature on the registration application. An Alaska state official noted that the state also conducts vigorous voter education to make sure voters know what form of identification to bring to the polls.

Improve Ballot Design

The science of ergonomics can vastly improve ballot design by creating ballots that are easy to read and use. Too often, unfortunately, local officials with little experience in desiring ballots are left with the task, and the results aren't good.

Political parties, candidates and interested citizens' groups must be given a reasonable opportunity to comment on the design of the ballot well before Election Day. This should be an open process subject to public notice and comment before any decisions are made.

Ensure Uniformity in the Conduct of Elections

Election officials are now promulgating administrative rules and procedures for Election Day and post-Election Day certification. This process must be open, and the rules must be clear prior to Election Day. The state must insist on fair uniform treatment of voters. In the Florida 2000 election, local officials were left to interpret too many state procedures and processes. Following the 2002 election, one state was issuing rules for counting provisional ballots (there were 27,000) in the middle of the canvass.