From Chads to Standards

Spurred by the chaotic post-election uncertainty in Florida, task forces, commissioned studies, and legislation at the state and federal level are springing up across the country to fix creaky electoral machinery.

The need after the Florida debacle is to be better prepared for midterm elections in 2002, and beyond.

But the rush to catch the public-interest wave in electoral reform must be guided by those who can best determine what the real need is. Most of the responsibility for accurate vote counts is at the state and, especially, the local level.

Florida is not alone

Many problems created by the hodgepodge of voting methods, equipment, and recount procedures have been easy to ignore because so few elections have been as close as last November's.

While Florida received the national spotlight, other states experienced similar, troubling voting irregularities. Al Gore beat George W. Bush by just 5,688 votes in Wisconsin, for example. There, concerns were raised about out-of-state college students voting, Illinois residents crossing the border to register and vote, and the homeless being given cigarettes in exchange for voting.

The nation's close call with a constitutional crisis over voting irregularities demands urgent reforms, but there's no one-size-fits-all solution to fixing the myriad problems.

The National Commission on Election Standards and Reform, comprised of 21 election officials from around the country, held its second meeting this week in Seattle, and will make recommendations to the president and Congress this spring.

States roll up their sleeves

States with a mishmash of local voting procedures might consider following Florida's lead in trying to achieve a statewide voting standard. That might prevent some of the worst problems of last November, when a number of Florida counties were found to have flawed counting and registration systems.

In terms of state legislative efforts at electoral reform, Virginia currently leads the pack with nearly 70 bills or amendments submitted. The national total in all statehouses at last count was just under 300.

New Mexico's legislators are talking about adopting touch-screen machines for voting to reduce the error rate. Connecticut, California, Colorado, and Arizona are among those looking at voting over the Internet. Many states plan to improve recount procedures. Texas and California may prohibit punch-card ballots. One Illinois bill proposes a machine that checks ballots for errors and provides for an immediate revote if the ballot is incorrectly filled out.

These reforms are being driven by several national associations of local and state officials, such as the National Associations of Counties (NACO). These groups need to merge their recommendations into something as close to a uniform standard as possible, while taking regional differences into account. They'd be wise to loop in Congress and the Bush administration.

Replacing old error-fraught gear with speedy, more-accurate machines will be technologically demanding, and costly. Companies introducing innovative voting technologies should be careful not to raise voter expectations too high. Any new system will likely have flaws. The idea is to minimize them.

States, localities, spark change

NACO would like Congress to supply at least some money for states to implement their own reforms, but it doesn't want a separate federal commission set up to oversee election reform nationwide.

One bill before Congress, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York and others, envisions a bipartisan commission that would make recommendations on election reform to the Federal Election Commission by year's end. Federal grants would then be made to "facilitate the adoption by states of the recommendations ... for alternate means and instruments of voting...."

States may be tempted by the lure of grants to adopt federally derived standards, but they should remain wary. The Constitution wisely leaves voting procedures to the states, which function as ongoing laboratories of democracy. Washington may be able to help around the edges, but states and localities should lead reform.

NACO and others will spread around the latest findings and technological options. The result ought to be credible standards that can be adapted by election boards coast to coast. The country may still face cliffhanger elections in the future, but such contests should never again turn on an analysis of chads - hanging, dimpled, pregnant, or otherwise.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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