Block the vote

Politics | Partisan politics and faulty technology thwart election reform

Issue: "Superheroes strike again," Aug. 6, 2005

Whatever happened to slips of paper and a top hat?

From hanging chads to long lines to malfunctioning electronic machines, the nightmare of federal, state, and local elections grows increasingly complex. Accounts of problems in this past November's election seemed endless-thousands of uncounted votes in Wisconsin, a computer glitch leading to millions of negative votes in Ohio, hundreds of felons voting in Nevada, dead people voting in Washington state, and a host of significant other problems in 39 of 50 states.

Nine months later, are such hitches fixed?

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Yes and no, according to Caltech political science professor Michael Alvarez, co-director of the Caltech-MIT/Voting Technology Project. "States in certain areas are being required to make changes," he told WORLD. "But a lot of it is a process problem and a people problem, so a lot of these issues are always going to be with us." Federal requirements for computerized statewide voter files aim to solve Election-Day confusion by placing laptops at every polling location. And a new federal law requiring electronic machines to produce paper trails is expected to pass. But whether thousands of districts across the nation can successfully implement such changes remains in question. "If not solvable, a lot of the problems can at least be mitigated," Mr. Alvarez said.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), committing $3.9 billion of federal funds to help states mitigate their respective deficiencies. That more than half of that money was spent before November's difficulties indicates financial resources alone are not enough. Proposed amendments to HAVA have garnered little congressional traction. "I don't think anybody, including myself, thinks that anything is going to change as far as HAVA is concerned before the next presidential election," Mr. Alvarez said.

U.S. Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) recently introduced the Secure America's Vote Act to change the way states count provisional ballots. Any federal legislation requiring photo IDs at the polls, however, has run headlong into a Democratic blockade, leaving states to decide the issue individually.

Following a federal probe that revealed significant voter fraud in 2004, Wisconsin responded with a proposal requiring every voter to produce government-issued photo identification on Election Day. But Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has repeatedly vetoed the bill, arguing it would disenfranchise up to 100,000 people-mainly the elderly who often live in nursing homes and have no need for photo IDs.

Wisconsin Republicans have accused Mr. Doyle of siding with cheaters-partisanship not uncommon throughout the country, despite this issue's seemingly apolitical nature. The tendency in most states seeking change is for Republicans to side with stricter rules, while Democrats argue for looser systems in the name of avoiding disenfranchisement. Tussling over the photo ID issue in Georgia and Indiana has fallen along such party lines that Democratic lawmakers in both states recently walked off the job in protest.

Despite such opposition, the two states have enacted photo ID requirements-with stipulations. The Georgia law includes a provision for the poor to acquire free IDs. The Indiana law allows those without IDs to cast provisional ballots, provided they swear the following Monday that poverty or religious objections prevented them from obtaining an ID. The Indiana Civil Liberties Union and Democratic Party are suing to overturn their state's measure-resistance nonexistent in 19 other states with photo-free identification laws that allow utility bills or pay stubs to act as IDs.

Reports of other state-specific scuffles litter headlines daily. Officials debate the reliability of electronic machines, whether to extend elections over several weeks, and the amount of training for poll workers. A majority in Congress seems resigned to that state-by-state approach. "We have a tradition in the United States of allowing states and localities to do things differently, because it's a place where innovation occurs," Mr. Alvarez said. So far, however, computers have proved little better than top hats.


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