Since the presidential election debacle in November 2000, Cathy Cox, Georgia’s secretary of state, has been a zealous crusader for election reform. Against all odds, she successfully pushed an ambitious proposal past the legislature in time for the 2002 election. Cox’s basic plan — putting touch-screen voting machines in every single Georgia precinct — has resulted in the most significant and far-reaching change anywhere in the country.
In many states, election reform degenerated into myriad study commissions, internal bickering and most of all, a long wait for Congress to pass an election-reform bill. In Georgia, Cox didn’t let that happen. From the very start, she was hell-bent on getting new machines, reasoning that all momentum would be lost unless she acted immediately.
In the weeks after the 2000 election, Cox’s office put together a report on Georgia’s election performance. The results weren’t pretty. The report estimated that bad election technology had spoiled 94,000 votes in Georgia, more than in Florida and almost double the national average. Election technology in Georgia ran the gamut, from paper ballots to lever machines to punch cards to optical scans, and the report showed serious flaws in all systems. Although Cox was committed to getting high-tech, touch-screen voting machines, she knew that most counties wouldn’t change machines unless the state paid for them.
When she first went to the legislature with cost estimates on touch-screen machines, Cox says, “they told me that I was out of my mind.” But in the following months, the price of the machines came down and the court ruled that bonds could be used to finance the upgrades. Despite a tough budget year, she was able to get the legislature to issue $54 million worth of bonds to buy 19,000 high-tech machines. Under the federal government’s election-reform bill, most of the money will be reimbursed — something Cox argued for when she testified twice before Congress.
Not everyone agrees with Cox’s methods — the value of touch-screen machines and the issue of statewide control over the election process are still up for debate — but few could dispute the accomplishment of overhauling a whole state’s election system almost single-handedly. “For her to convince the legislature, get the funds and sell it to 159 county officials is pretty remarkable,” says Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project. “If you had to pick a list of five people identified with election reform — not just because of what they said but what they did — she would be on it.”
Cox, a lawyer and former state legislator from rural Georgia, first made history just by winning election to the secretary of state’s office in 1998. With the exception of school superintendent, no other statewide office had ever been occupied by a woman. Although Cox exudes Southern charm, political insiders know that she can be as tough and aggressive as a street fighter — which is a good thing, because her duties as secretary of state also include those of boxing commissioner.
This month, her handiwork will be put to the test. Rather than rolling out the machines in a special election or a primary, Georgia is doing it in the general election. With characteristic attention to detail, Cox also secured $4 million in cash for training — a particularly prescient move in light of Florida’s numerous troubles with inconsistent poll-worker training in its September 2002 primary. That money includes 13 full-time staff members who do nothing but demonstrate the machines at grocery stores, churches and senior centers.
There’s one other small detail that Cox hopes works out for her on Election Day: She’s up for reelection and she’d like to win. In her opinion, her reelection campaign is the ultimate referendum on the new machines. “I wouldn’t try to do this with my name on the ballot unless I was 1,000 percent sure of it,” she says. “We will show the rest of the nation that this is the way to vote.”
— Anya Sostek
Photos by Robin Nelson