Momentum is Growing for Election Reform on Capitol Hill

Edit Memo from Ralph G. Neas

With just over 600 days left until the 2008 elections, congressional leaders are proposing legislation to address serious problems in our nation’s electoral system—and meet the urgent need to act quickly so that needed reforms can be put in place in time for the coming presidential election and thousands of state and local races.

Six years after a Caltech and MIT study found that some four million Americans were disenfranchised in the 2000 elections, serious problems remain. Voting technology that cannot be verified or audited, or is inaccessible, deceptive tactics that attempt to deceive voters and suppress turnout, burdensome identification requirements, indefensible barriers to registration and voting and incompetent election administration—all these problems persisted in the 2006 elections. We simply cannot afford more of the same in 2008.

Members of Congress stand ready with legislation to address these problems, but time is very short. Unless legislation is enacted by the fall of 2007, election officials will not have sufficient time to implement reforms.

A strong coalition of voter advocacy and civil rights groups is coalescing in support of federal election reform legislation, including People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation, Common Cause, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, MoveOn.org, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Brennan Center, MALDEF, the NAACP, and the National Education Association. Momentum is building daily.

Ensuring fair elections must be an urgent, bipartisan priority. Indeed, our goal is to ensure that every Republican, Democrat, and Independent can cast a vote and have that vote counted. This memo lays out the problems we face, the proposed reforms, and the pressing need to act, including the provision of adequate funding to put the reforms in place.

THE PROBLEMS

We don’t have to go back far to find problems—the 2006 midterm elections gave us plenty of examples.

Voting machines

Perhaps the biggest fiasco was the congressional race in Sarasota County, Florida, where evidence suggests voting machine errors caused more than 18,000 votes simply to disappear in the congressional race. Numerous accounts from Sarasota voters at a hearing sponsored by People For the American Way Foundation provide compelling testimony that faulty machine programming or malfunctioning touch screens disenfranchised voters. People For the American Way Foundation is co-counsel in a lawsuit calling for a revote. The case, which is still in litigation, highlights one of the most fundamental problems in our electoral system: with current voting technology, most voters cannot verify that their votes were counted as they intended before they leave their polling places, nor can they expect any kind of meaningful audit of the machines.

Five other counties in Florida and many jurisdictions in other states experienced similar problems with the same voting technology—the iVotronic machine—used in Sarasota. Election officials in Williamson County, Texas, say iVotronic machines malfunctioned, counting each vote three times. After voting concluded in a mayoral race in a small town in Arkansas, the iVotronic count had one mayoral candidate with zero votes, even though he voted for himself, as did his wife.

Deceptive practices and intimidation

In Prince George’s County, Maryland, voters were handed a bogus “Democratic Sample Ballot” that used the unauthorized pictures of three prominent African American Democratic politicians, falsely claiming their support for a Republican ticket. Hispanic voters in Orange County, California received a letter threatening them with jail time for voting, a dirty trick that was traced to a congressional campaign.

Voters across the country reported a wave of annoying, deceptive “robocalls” made on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee. The calls purported to be from Democratic candidates, automatically redialing frustrated voters after they hung up. The apparent intent was to annoy voters so much that they would switch their vote, or simply not show up at the polls.

Voter ID and Provisional Ballots

Longtime voters in Pennsylvania, Maryland, Minnesota, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington, D.C., reported poll workers requesting photo identification, although none of these jurisdictions have laws requiring such identification from longtime registered voters.

And while provisional ballots were intended to provide voters who encounter problems at the polls a way to cast their votes, they have instead become a barrier. Regulations vary from state to state, even from one polling place to the next, and provisional ballots often go uncounted. The resulting voter frustration can lead to lower turnout.

THE SOLUTIONS

Earlier this month, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) introduced the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2007, a bill to require that all voters be permitted to cast a ballot on auditable, secure voting machines that are accessible to all voters. The Holt bill would make voting machines meet basic federal standards in time for the 2008 elections.

With 196 cosponsors already signed on, including 17 Republicans, the bill would require that:

  • all voting machines produce a paper ballot which would count as the official ballot for purposes of all recounts
  • election machines be manually audited, with electronic totals compared to paper records
  • all voting machines software be available for inspection
  • wireless technology be removed from all voting machines
  • voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency be able to vote privately and independently on secure machines

People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation both support this important legislation.

Also, both organizations strongly support Sen. Barack Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Intimidation Prevention Act, introduced with Sen. Charles Schumer and eight other Senate cosponsors, as well as a similar bill introduced in the House by Reps. John Conyers (D-MI) and Rahm Emanuel (D-IL) with 43 cosponsors to date. The bills would:

  • provide comprehensive definitions of what constitutes a deceptive practice
  • criminalize such practices and assess appropriate penalties
  • call on the Department of Justice to work with other federal agencies, state officials, and leading civil rights and voter protection organizations to help immediately disseminate corrective information to voters
  • create a reporting structure for incidents that would help citizens to address grievances

In addition, Sen. Hillary Clinton’s “Count Every Vote Act,” a comprehensive reform measure that People For the American Way supported during the last Congress, is set to be re-introduced tomorrow in the Senate, with corresponding legislation in the House to be introduced by Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH).

Taken together, these bills address the full range of problems that we have seen in recent elections. They also take steps to remove barriers to the ballot box and encourage wider voter participation through measures like same-day registration, early voting, uniform counting of provisional ballots, equitable distribution of resources, and permanent no-excuse absentee voting. They deserve immediate attention from the leadership on both sides of the aisle.

In addition, we applaud Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration for the recent election reform hearings focusing on voting technology, including the debacle in Sarasota. People For the American Way and People For the American Way Foundation continue to urge Congress to thoroughly investigate the problems in Sarasota and in other locations where the voting process failed, where voters were misled or intimidated, or where serious questions have been raised about the integrity of the voting process.

CONCLUSION

With a huge turnout expected in the presidential election of 2008, it is highly probable that unless we act immediately, the problems we saw in 2006 will arise again. Martin Luther King Jr. often used the phrase, “The urgency of now.” If these reforms are to be in place for 2008, Congress must act now.

We can have paper trails that voters can verify on the spot. We can ban secret voting machine codes that can’t be examined. We can ensure that our election machinery works, through systematic manual audits. We can make sure citizens with limited English skills can vote in the language they understand best. We can make sure that voters with disabilities have privacy and ease of access to the ballot. We can ban deceptive practices that intimidate voters and keep them away from the polls. We can open up access to the ballot box with initiatives like same-day registration, early voting, and no-excuse absentee voting. And we can ensure there is fair and equitable distribution of voting machines for all voters.

In short, we can have election reform that will ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to vote, and to have that vote counted. Such reform is within our grasp. Nothing less than the future of our democracy is at stake.

With hundreds of members of Congress already signed on to reform legislation, momentum is growing, but the clock is ticking. We have only a few months left to implement reforms in time for the 2008 elections. Six years after the fiasco in Florida that called the integrity of our elections into question, it’s time to act. People For the American Way and our members and activists around the country will continue to push for immediate reform.

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