May 27, 2020

Now, ballot reform

Americans are an accepting people. No better proof of that comes in the aftermath of the presidential election. An election too close to call was called, there was unprecedented court intervention in the political process, the winner in the Electoral College is not the winner of the popular vote and yet the vast majority of Americans accept George W. Bush as the next president. And they should.

What the vast majority of American should not and – as the preponderance of post-election polls suggest – do not accept is a voting process now exposed to the nation and to the world at best sloppy and antiquated, at worst rife with chicanery and bias.

Americans are justifiably shocked to learn that the way we register to vote, cast votes and count the results is unable to withstand the demands of a close election. There are two components to the issue of ballot reform; one is technical glitches.

Congress and the states must work together, vigorously and quickly, to ensure that the margin of error in counting ballots does not vary so widely across precincts, counties, even states. The chances of your presidential vote being accurately counted should not depend upon where you live and what your local elections board can afford. If there is one positive aspect of the Florida debacle, it is the revelation that the now-infamous Votomatic punch-card system, widely used throughout the country, is five times more likely to misread a ballot than the paper ballot-optical scanner system such as is used in Maine.

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York is introducing legislation directing the Federal Elections Commission to study the entire voting process, from the integrity of registration rolls to voting technology to uniform national polling hours. The legislation also calls for Congress to provide up to $500 million in matching grants to states willing to upgrade their voting technology. That is a worthwhile proposal, but too modest.

An accurate, reliable and uniform national voting system would cost several billion, it is clearly in the national interest and it should be fully funded by Congress. And the wheel here already has been invented: optical scanner systems are accurate, the paper ballot leaves behind a reliable record and the tabulation of votes at the local level allays concerns about fraud at the state or national level.

The second component is institutional bias, the mounting evidence that the voices of African-Americans and other minorities were disproportionately stifled in everything from arcane registration practices and voter-roll purging to the use of rickety equipment in predominantly minority communities. Nothing will destroy the fabric of society more quickly or completely than the perception, tragically real, that the votes of one part of America do not count for as much as those of another.

This bias must be immediately and thoroughly eradicated. The Supreme Court, though inadvertently, made this an imperative when it stopped the Florida manual recount on equal-protection grounds. It will be an important part of the FEC study. Most importantly, it must, come Jan. 20, be the first order of business for President George W. Bush and his Justice Department.

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