Facebook Twitter

New studies could help launch nation toward election reforms

SHARE New studies could help launch nation toward election reforms

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Dump punch cards and lever machines and go high-tech. Boost voter education efforts. Get rid of glitches in registration and absentee voting.

Eight months after the presidential election showed the nation deep flaws in the way it votes, help is on the way from several election reform studies.

The states' top election officials gathered this week to review progress on three studies. At the same time, a national analysis of voting technologies was made public in Boston and Pasadena, Calif., produced by two top universities.

Taken together, these studies and a few others provide both a diagnosis of what's gone wrong with elections and a guide for decisionmakers on the best path for improvements.

Ideas put forth so far range from establishing a permanent federal program to help pay for voter education to encouraging each polling place to offer provisional ballots for people who don't appear on election rolls. That would save their votes in case they are actually registered.

"These are exceptionally important," said Philip Zelikow, director of an elections commission overseen by Presidents Carter and Ford. "Right now we're in the midst of a ferment, a once-a-generation ferment. And 10 years from now, we may have transformed the way we conduct elections."

The report on voting technologies, produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology, is the only academic analysis of all the studies.

It recommends all punch card and lever voting machines be replaced with optical scan voting machines immediately. Optical scan systems average half the rate of uncounted ballots as punch cards and lever machines, the report said.

By summer's end, new reports will also lay out the perspective on top-to-bottom reform as seen by local and state election administrators, county officials and state legislators. Another two reports will aim to pull together diverging views.

They all follow several recent studies, including two reports that found minorities suffered inordinately from voting problems in Florida and nationwide.

A consensus on how to fix the system has yet to emerge. But some points of agreement are becoming clear, such as:

Expanding voter education and support at the polls, with a greater commitment from local, state and federal governments.

Launching a national effort to track the best voting machines and ballot designs.

Ensuring voters aren't left out, whether through faults in registration systems, glitches on Election Day or problems with overseas or absentee voters.

"You're finding a natural migration to these broader issues," said North Carolina state Rep. Dan Blue, helping draft a report for the National Conference of State Legislatures. But there are conflicts, too — disputes over the best technologies; balancing cost with the need for access for the visually disabled and language-impaired; local and state governments concerned about burdensome federal regulations.

While there is wide agreement that federal money is needed to buy better voting machines and improve overall elections support, state and local governments also don't want to lose control.

"We want the federal government's help," said Ron Thornburgh, the Kansas secretary of state. "But we don't want them to squash us."

So far this year, Florida, Georgia and Maryland have approved sweeping improvements in their voting systems; most other states have made smaller changes or are studying the issue. Congress has yet to approve any reform bills.

Many voices are struggling to be heard on election reform: civil rights groups, military voters, the disabled, the election industry, those worried about increasing reliance on technology, and groups from all points on the political spectrum.

To find common ground on some issues, top election officials plan to meet with civil rights groups, said Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest, outgoing president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. "I think it would be better if we can go forward to Congress with one voice," she said, "and say these are the good things that we agree on, these are the ones where you need to be the parent."

Her group, meeting in Little Rock on Monday, presented its recommendations of best practices for state elections officials. They also reviewed the progress each state has made so far this year.

In the next few weeks, new studies or recommendations will also be released by the National Conference of State Legislatures; the Constitution Project, a bipartisan group; the Elections Center, a nonpartisan group of local and state election officials; and the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, overseen by Carter and Ford.

Nearly all avoid any suggestions of wholesale change, and note that the election system works fairly well. Still, between problems with machines, registration and accessibility, researchers at Caltech-MIT estimate as many as 6 million people intended to vote and either could not, or their votes were ruined.

"This goes to the absolute heart of our entire system of government," said Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox. "There is no conceivable way we can let the current system operate the way it does today."