Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Tackling Election Reform

New York Times

After a second consecutive presidential election marred by significant flaws in the mechanics of voting, it's time for Congress to take a hard look at fixing the system. Two Senate bills aim to do that. A Republican-sponsored bill is narrowly tailored around making electronic voting more reliable. A more ambitious bill, sponsored by the Democrats, would take on a broad array of problems, from long lines at the polls to odious maneuvers aimed at keeping people from voting. Both bills would greatly improve the functioning of American democracy.

The Republican bill, introduced by Senator John Ensign of Nevada, would focus on the most critical weakness in the system by requiring that electronic voting machines produce voter-verifiable paper records of the votes cast. The paper records would take precedence when there were inconsistencies.

Mr. Ensign's bill does not go as far as another paper-trail bill that has been introduced in the House by Representative Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat. That bill is preferable because it includes other safeguards, like requiring an audit of some paper records as a spot-check for the electronic totals. Still, Mr. Ensign's bill would be a good step, and its Republican sponsorship and narrow focus could give it real momentum in this Congress.

The Democratic Senate bill, introduced last week by Senators Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer, John Kerry and Frank Lautenberg, is now the gold standard for election reform. It would require not only paper records, but recounts in 2 percent of all polling places or precincts, and restrictions on political activity by voting machine manufacturers.

The bill would also take on lines at the polls - which stretched up to 10 hours this year - by requiring standards for the minimum number of voting machines per precinct. It would limit the states' ability to throw out voter registration forms and provisional ballots on technicalities, and prevent them from using onerous identification requirements to turn away eligible voters. And it would strike a blow against vote suppression by outlawing the use of deception - like fliers giving the wrong date for a election - to keep people from voting.

Some important big-picture reforms would also be made by that Democratic Senate bill. It would make Election Day a holiday, freeing up people to vote and serve as poll workers, and it would require states to allow early voting. It would bar chief election officials, including secretaries of state, from engaging in partisan politics. And it would require states to restore the vote to felons who have paid their debts to society; many of them are now barred from voting.

Election reform should not be a partisan issue. No member of Congress should be satisfied with a system in which voters are forced to wait in line for hours or to vote on unreliable machines. Americans from across the political spectrum were moved to see Iraqi voters going to the polls last month. Congress should take that idealism and direct it toward making our own election system the best it can be.

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