Cries for Electoral Standards Mount
By Steven Hill and Rob Richie
The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News
anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how
we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David
Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system
in this country."
In a message to supporters, former presidential
candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national
standards" for elections and saying, "It's unacceptable that people still
don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In
Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need
for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right
guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the
Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's
HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.
The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to
modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms.
Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy
and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.
Consider these reforms:
(1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of
the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether
the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized
equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries
of state overseeing elections in three battleground states — Ohio,
Missouri, and Michigan — were co-chairs of their state's George Bush
reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for
governor — he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan
Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan
Democrat in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented,
"That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Election
administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated
proficiency with technology, running elections, and making the electoral
process transparent and secure.
(2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves
election administration to administrators in over 3,000 counties scattered
across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a formula
for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections
commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to
partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and
post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections
Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is
a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.
(3) Universal voter registration. We lack a system of
universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age
automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the
practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far
more complete and clean than ours — in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi
adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter
registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America
Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter
databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a
disproportionate share being young people and people of color.
(4) "Public Interest" voting equipment. Currently
voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The
proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with
partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election
administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government
should oversee the development of publicly owned software and hardware,
contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that
open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to
ensure that every county — and every voter — is using the best equipment.
Other nations already do this with positive results.
(5) Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy
workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (as most other nations
do), creating a barrier for 9 to 5 workers and also leading to a shortage
of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest
voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.
(6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full
representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the
redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of
U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were won
by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance
inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative
district lines. As a start, redistricting must be non-partisan, driven by
nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation
electoral systems which make voters far more important than district
(7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral
College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most
states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to
decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election
administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most
votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to
institute direct election of the president with a majority victory
(8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter
wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep
third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over
Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed
to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be
completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies
accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff
elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems
for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San
Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington,
Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.
A number of organizations are highlighting reform
packages, among them
Progressive Democrats of America and
Common Cause. We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make
advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that
emerge. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at
www.fairvote.org to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a
Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, or independent, you can be part
of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party.
Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow for the New
America Foundation and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of
America's Winner Take All Politics" (www.FixingElections.com).
Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org).