One Year After Florida

Though state legislatures have discovered the complexities of implementing meaningful election reform, that shouldn't slow them down as they work to fix the flaws revealed nationwide after last November's recount standoff in Florida.

Blue-ribbon commissions, task forces, and hundreds of reform-related bills were some of the initial reactions to the presidential election of November 2000. But as happened to many pending issues of national importance, the "war" on terrorism seems to have pushed election reform out of view.

Has it stalled? Somewhat, but not completely. The public can take heart that reform momentum, while not easy to see in the current news environment, is still under way. The sad news: Not many real reforms will take place before next year's national elections.

Policies have life cycles

One explanation for an apparent, though somewhat deceptive, lack of progress may be "natural policy life cycles," according to presidential scholar Thomas Mann: A problem is identified, a flood of legislation is introduced, then partisan differences become more pronounced.

The discovery that there are no quick fixes creates some pessimism, Dr. Mann points out. But lawmakers have meanwhile become equipped with a better understanding of the issue. And that can lead to a positive diffusion of innovative ideas.

States have taken the lead

Florida, to its credit, has taken the lead, passing a sweeping election-reform law recently, which should help create much-needed consistency in voting processes there. Maryland and Georgia, too, have passed legislation to improve their voting systems. Other states, such as California, Texas, Indiana, and North Carolina, have taken steps to eliminate the now-infamous punch-card ballots.

Virginia, which will hold a statewide election early next month, already possesses an important piece of any election-reform measure - provisional ballots, which allow citizens with a registration question to vote and their registration to be later verified. The state already had a statewide voter-registration system. Virginia's ballots are approved at the state level, minimizing the chance for mistakes. It now requires "faithful" Electoral College electors. Other states would do well to study Virginia's reform efforts.

One of many disturbing issues reported by election officials, according to a recent General Accounting Office report, was the lack of adequate staffing of polling places. Such staffing has to be part of meaningful reform. South Carolina has passed a notable bill allowing high school students to work at polling places.

Surprisingly, that same GAO study showed that a big majority of election officials were satisfied with the methods of voting in their states. Was Florida simply a once-in-a-lifetime aberration, a wake-up call that wasn't?

Possibly, but the 2000 presidential election also uncovered abundant opportunities to bring America's voting methods and apparatus up to the standards demanded by its vibrant democracy.

Congress's limited, but vital, role

For its part, Congress remains stalled on election reform. Partisan differences are one problem, but the federal lawmakers should also take care not to step on the toes of the state and local officials who are rightfully spearheading the effort.

Even so, an otherwise-occupied Capitol Hill reportedly has a promising piece of election-reform legislation in the works. Sens. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut and Christopher Bond (R) of Missouri (and House counterparts with similar reform goals) could help revive this important issue, and spur states toward further reform. A bill sponsored by Senator Dodd would, among other things, require states to meet uniform standards for election technology and administration. It also would allow citizens to cast provisional ballots if their registration isn't immediately verifiable.

Citizens fixing the system

With the country in a "fix it" mode, institutions such as schools and media can make efforts to boost reform by educating current and future voters about the issues and options - all with an eye to making the voting experience more user-friendly. School boards can fund initiatives in high schools to educate first-time voters on fulfilling their duties as citizens.

Without more concern from everyone to improve the voting process, the reform efforts may fizzle. Then, any election where the vote count is close will have doubts hanging over it. American democracy needs to seize this opportunity to avoid that taint.

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