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Improvements must be made to voting system

By Chris Kempf
On November 8, 2012

I was 8-years-old in late 2000 when the United States experienced the greatest electoral crisis it had known since Reconstruction. Consequently, I don't remember too much about it. But both of my grandparents lived in Florida at the time. What a disaster it was - litigation, recounts and partisan acrimony that stretched on for well over a month after Election Day. They both recall, more than anything else, the hanging chads and the diabolical stupidity that led to the dispute over them. Last semester, I voted on a voting machine and a ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla. used in the 2000 elections in Professor Sam Best's Political Opinion class and produced a few hanging chads myself. I could only think myself lucky to have sufficient coordination and eyesight to vote successfully. But hundreds of thousands of elderly voters - including my grandparents - were not so lucky.
In spite of the passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, the security, integrity and success of our electoral processes remain the laughingstock of the Western democracies. Even 12 years after that great crisis of democracy, the real lessons of Florida have not been learnt. Voters waited in line for hours on Tuesday across the nation. We will never know how many were dissuaded from voting by a long wait. Even in West Hartford, town officials seemed surprised that their election infrastructure was being overwhelmed by a high turnout when they had, earlier this year, reduced the number of polling places in the town from 20 to 9. Thirteen states used highly unverifiable electronic voting equipment on Tuesday, and in New Jersey voters were even permitted to submit votes by e-mail. In Washington, a state that requires postal voting, complete results will not be known for days, as law only requires that ballots be postmarked by Election Day. A foreign observer of elections in the United States would surely be struck by the chaos and confusion which invariably afflicts the vote here.
Some of this disorder can be attributed to the Constitution. No federal authority was created to administer and oversee elections, as the Constitution was written before the era of mass electoral participation. Per the 10th Amendment, the responsibility for elections is left to the states and to their thousands of counties and municipalities. Federalism, in which the governmental power is divided between state and federal institutions, is clearly the enemy of fair elections. In the case of elections to federal offices, it is utterly foolish to have 50 separate and conflicting standards for ballot access, ballot design and voter registration in effect. This federalist principle is the first cause of the strict voter ID legislation passed in several state legislatures, of the differences of availability of absentee ballots and early voting across the states, and of the radical differences of the Election Day voting experience across the nation.
Another contributor to our failing system is the administration of elections by partisan officials. Katherine Harris, the secretary of state in Florida at the time of the 2000 election, was elected as a Republican and chaired Bush's Florida campaign. The secretary of state in Connecticut and the Registrars of Voters of each of its 169 towns are all elected officials who represent a political party and can be expected to unconsciously, administer elections with a bias toward the candidates or the party that they support. Finally, much more remains to be done to extend the franchise to the poor, to minority populations, to prisoners and to citizens living in places like Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. If we demand that voters take time off from work on a Tuesday to vote or that they register weeks in advance of an election or that they produce a photo ID at the polls, we should not be surprised that our voter turnout rate is so low.
We could learn much from Canada about how to run elections. Canada's elections are run by a non-partisan, independent agency whose staff is responsible for counting votes and operating polling sites and is directly responsible to Parliament. All Canadians vote on the same paper ballots and face the same rules for eligibility. A debacle like the one that occurred in Florida is all but impossible there. But our deeply flawed and unfair system is deeply rooted in our law and history and political tradition. It will take a crisis much worse than the one that beset Florida in 2000 to finally eviscerate it. In light of our inability to otherwise come to terms with our failure as a democracy, however, America deserves nothing less.
 


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