Recipe For A Fair Election
June 12, 2006
Steven Hill is author of the recently published 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy and director of the Political Reform Program of the New America Foundation.
Part II of a two-part series, Part I appeared on June 5, 2006.
Heading into the 2006 congressional and state elections, fair election advocates need to remain vigilant, particularly in the handful of close races where a swing of a small number of votes could change an election outcome. Longer term, activists must turn their efforts to a more visionary agenda that will ensure fair and secure elections in the 21st century. Here are the reforms necessary for modernizing our elections and making sure that every vote is counted.
1. Nonpartisan election officials. At the top of the list must be creating a bureaucracy of impartial, nonpartisan election officials. We should have learned this lesson in the 2000 presidential election when Katherine Harris oversaw the Florida election as both secretary of state and co-chair of George Bush’s election committee. If it can’t be guaranteed that the partisan loyalties of election managers will play no role in deciding outcomes, then elections become a charade. Election protection advocates fearful of voting technology forget that fraud has occurred throughout American history with paper ballots, whether through ballot box stuffing or entire ballot boxes disappearing. It hardly matters if the voting technology is computerized voting or paper ballots if the election administrators themselves are partisan-motivated or crooked.
Yet for the 2004 election, it was as though Katherine Harris had cloned herself. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in the battleground states of Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan were all co-chairs of their states’ Bush reelection campaigns; in West Virginia, the Democratic Secretary of State oversaw the election for his own governor’s race. In Florida, a highly partisan Republican secretary of state once again ran the election, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico. A political scientist from Mexico City monitoring the 2004 U.S. presidential election told Business Week that election administration in the United States “looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me,” referring to the notorious party that dominated Mexican politics for seven decades by rigging elections.
Did we learn this lesson in 2004? Not in Ohio, apparently. This year, notorious Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell is overseeing the election in which he is running as the GOP candidate for governor. The New York Times reports that already Blackwell is trying to rig voter registration laws to increase his chances by issuing rulings that all but squash get-out-the-vote drives that will register more poor and minority voters.
Election officials should be forbidden from running for office while overseeing elections or from serving as co-chairs of campaigns. Clear regulations should restrict the involvement of election officials in all political campaigns. To avoid even a question of bias, elections policies and procedures should be set well in advance of the election by a commission of officials who are non-partisan or represent a wide spectrum of political beliefs.
2. Professionalization and training of election officials. In addition to non-partisanship, election administration should be upgraded to that of a professional civil service position as a way of ensuring competence, training and impartiality. Running elections has become increasingly complex, requiring a sophisticated knowledge of software, databases, voting equipment, public relations, and organizational management for overseeing dozens of employees and thousands of volunteers in the larger jurisdictions. Yet there are no vocational schools or degree programs where one can learn how to administer such a highly intricate process. It’s all on-the-job training. The elections director of one large California county was a junior elections clerk answering telephones only a few years before becoming director; before that he wrote product descriptions for a seafood company.
Election administrators and technical consultants should be specially trained, professional civil servants who show a demonstrated proficiency with using appropriate technology, running elections, and making the electoral process transparent and secure. Better training also should be extended to poll workers and the armies of volunteers needed to administer an election. Without well-trained, professional and nonpartisan election managers, the outcomes of elections always will be open to doubt.
3. National elections commission and national standards. The United States leaves the administration of elections to local officials in more than 3,000 counties and 9,000 townships with few national standards to guide them. This creates different standards and practices for procedures like recounts and use of absentee and provisional ballots, as well as wide discrepancies in the quality of voting equipment. Imagine if our railway lines, highways, or airline regulations had no national consistency, and so traveling from state to state was mired by confusion and varying quality. Obviously there would be a national outcry, yet that’s the current state of election standards. Some states establish their own statewide standards, but those are arbitrarily enforced and frequently seem to be playing catch-up to changes in technology for voting equipment.
Most established democracies use national election commissions to set uniform standards, to develop secure and reliable voting equipment, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre- and post-election accountability. A centralized standards-setting commission would benefit all voters. Just as the National Highway Board is empowered to set standards for highway design and construction, a national elections commission should have the authority to create minimum standards that states must follow to ensure the quality of elections. It’s just common sense. The U.S. Election Assistance Commission, established in the wake of the Florida debacle by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, represents the beginning of a national commission, but it needs to be strengthened greatly.
A more robust EAC would oversee a rigorous federal testing and certification process for voting equipment and software. A robust commission also could develop open source software and government-owned “public interest” voting equipment (see below); crack down on the revolving door between state election regulators and the voting equipment industry; set uniform standards for provisional ballots, ballot design, poll worker training, polling place locations, and ballot access for presidential candidates; integrate into voting equipment the capability to run elections using electoral systems like instant runoff voting, choice voting and cumulative voting; and enforce laws prohibiting voter suppression and intimidation. It also could provide rigorous evaluation of what works and what can be improved, and develop and propagate “best practices.”
Despite this urgent need, disappointingly the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS), the professional organization for all chief election officers, voted at its 2005 annual meeting that Congress should dissolve the EAC as an interference on states’ rights. This decision reveals what an ossified mind-set prevails among many of our states’ chief election officers. Apparently they want no oversight or regulation whatsoever over their dealings. But even more disturbing, The New York Times reported that 43 percent of the NASS budget comes from voting machine companies and other vendors. Cronyism and ethical conflicts have crept like a weed into every crack and crevice of our election administration.
4. Develop “public interest” voting equipment. At the very least, advocates of fair elections should demand a voter-verified paper trail so that any recounts will have a chance of uncovering errors or fraud. We have such an audit trail for ATM transactions; are our votes less important? Better still, the Holy Grail of election administration practices is what I call “public interest voting equipment”—the states and/or the federal government develop their own voting equipment and become vendors themselves. Instead of the nuts and bolts of our democracy being in the hands of private for-profit companies, a government commission would contract with the sharpest minds in the private sector to develop open source software that would be owned and managed by the state or federal government. That voting equipment then could be offered, either in competition with the private sector or solely as part of a statewide system deployed to rich and poor neighborhoods alike, to ensure that every voter is using the same, best equipment. Also, the testing and certification process would be fully public, subject to the rules and disclosures of open government, instead of how it is now, usually behind closed doors with little accountability.
Lest this suggestion seem radical, other nations such as Belgium, India, Argentina and Brazil already do this. India— the world’s largest democracy with twice as many voters as in the United States—held nationwide elections with voters from New Delhi to the Himalayas, illiterate voters and polyglot communities, nearly all of them voting on the same computerized equipment owned, developed and operated by the government in conjunction with the private sector. It is hard for a nation as proud as the United States to admit that we are playing catch-up to India and Brazil when it comes to election administration, but that is in fact the case. This is not rocket science, yet the United States lags woefully behind.
States and counties could do this on their own and not wait for the federal government. Los Angeles county, the most populous county in the United States, has partly created its own voting equipment. Georgia already has a statewide system purchased from a single vendor, and Dr. Brit Williams, who conducts Georgia’s certification evaluations, says “having a statewide system allows every county, regardless of wealth, to have the same system which also helps the state give technical support and training to all those counties. Everybody learns the same thing, it’s not a hodge-podge.”
Some of these recommendations can be enacted on the county or state levels (professional and nonpartisan election officials, auditable paper trails and public interest voting equipment); others, like the battle for a national elections commission and uniform standards, must be fought at the national level. Ultimately, there is a need for a long-term commitment to funding our elections, the $3 billion provided by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for the purchase of new voting equipment was the first time the federal government has helped fund elections. Federal funding should be ongoing, not just a one-time fix, to help the states pay for voter databases, better training, trustworthy equipment and other critical needs.
The 2004 election, on the heels of the 2000 election, serves as a dire warning: our antiquated electoral infrastructure and bureaucracy is shockingly broken. It’s a wonder things run as well as they do. It’s very much like the repeated warnings in New Orleans about the vulnerability of its levees. Without modernization of our administrative practices and equipment, as well as better public oversight and vigilance, our elections will remain vulnerable to breakdown and fraud. If we Americans cannot trust the integrity of our elections, whether because of incompetence, lousy technology, poor administration and training, or outright fraud, it will result in widespread apathy and resignation. Make no mistake about it—we are running our elections on borrowed time. Enacting these recommendations will vastly improve election administration and secure the vote for the future.