Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Congress called on to fix problems


WASHINGTON — Nearly five years after the 2000 election chaos, angry citizen groups are still storming Capitol Hill demanding change, task forces and special commissions are still churning out reports on fraud, and lawmakers are still vowing “never again” will America show the world elections marred by voting irregularities.

Because of the widespread lack of confidence in the vote count of 2000, two years later Congress passed the Help America Vote Act and appropriated $3 billion to improve the system.

But that was followed by the voting problems of 2004, which resulted in long lines at some polling stations, thousands of discarded challenged ballots, and massive confusion in many precincts. There were more hearings in Congress and more studies and commissions on how to reform the way America votes.

The problems with voting machines, voting procedures, identification, and timing of elections have spawned an industry of election-reform experts who have set up Web sites, newsletters, activist groups, and lobbying efforts all in the pursuit of change.

Dozens of states have voted for or are considering hundreds of proposals for change. At the federal level there is enormous confusion and disagreement on what should be done.

Advocates for change argue that if nothing is done this year, congressional elections could take place in an atmosphere of suspicion with a lack of voter participation.

This past week a task force of state and local election officials released a 72-page report of recommendations for change, such as scrapping neighborhood precincts and the quadrennial first-Tuesday-in-November Election Day. Instead, “vote centers” would be set up where voters could cast their ballots over a period of weeks.

In mid September another commission, headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker, is to report to the nation on its findings of what election reforms are needed. It is considering recommendations involving voting machines, timing of elections, how people vote - perhaps by mail or on the Internet - and how better to train poll workers.

From June 9 to 14, lobbyists are spreading out over Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to require that all electronic machine voting have a voter-verified paper trail to reassure voters their ballots are cast and counted.

Of more than a dozen proposals pending on Capitol Hill, many say that restoring a paper trail is the most likely to pass. Proponents say electronic voting has moved the country away from transparent elections. David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, told the Carter-Baker commission in April that paperless ballots mean voters "have no means to confirm that that the machines have recorded their votes correctly, nor will they have any assurance that their votes won't be changed later."

Despite the argument that the nation has been slow to change voting procedures, big changes are coming. By January all states are required by the 2002 law to have computerized, state-wide databases of registered voters. But a survey by electionline,org, a nonpartisan, nonadvocacy Web site that gathers information on election reform, said that every state's database will be different. Some will be good, some won't, and some won't be ready.

Another new provision of the law that will go into effect in less than seven months will require states that use voting machines to have technological and accessibility standards. But everyone agrees enormous problems remain there too.

For example, Ohio has gone through a years-long battle between county election boards and the secretary of state over everything from the type of voting machines to buy, to who pays for providing the new machines with paper trails, to the weight of ballot paper.

The report by the National Association of Election Officials this past week predicted the new provisions of the law will not be enforced as they should be. It said many problems in 2004 stemmed from an "unrealistic" expectation that an underfunded federal law, way behind schedule, would provide uniformity.

The report said there will be "substantial difficulty" meeting the January deadlies.

Jeffrey Zaino, vice president for the American Arbitration Association's department of elections, oversees hundreds of elections every year for unions, associations, colleges, and corporations. He said technology is not the big problem but inadequate or improper training for 1.4 million Election Day volunteers at 198,000 polling places.

He admits it is not easy to solve. Most Election Day workers only report for duty once or twice a year. And many have little computer experience.

At the federal level, The Century Fund, which co-sponsored the National Commission on Election Reform after the 2000 election, co-chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Carter, reports the 2002 law is not working as it should. Worse, the Century Fund said the 2004 election revealed "a deeply flawed voting system that in many ways has become more complicated and prone to abuse" than in 2000 because the new law led to more obstacles in voting.

Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said "tens of thousands" of voters still contact his office to express anger that "once again, their vote did not count." He held a hearing specifically on widespread 2004 problems in Ohio. President Bush received 286 electoral votes, 16 more than the 270 needed to win. Without Ohio, he would not have won.

Mr. Conyers insists most Americans want "real election reform," but he is not encouraged, saying congressional Republicans and Democrats remain far apart.

"Unless we act, the next close election will prompt the same debates and public confidence in our democracy will suffer a potentially fatal blow," Mr. Conyers told constituents.

Mr. Zaino, who has overseen thousands of private elections for 15 years, says that in a nation where the presidential election was decided in a state (Ohio) that has some counties that still use punch cards and where a major swing state (Pennsylvania) still has one-fourth of its voters using old-fashioned optical scanning machines, major changes probably won't occur until Congress gets more involved.


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