Election-Reform Quagmire

No one disputes that voting procedures need some serious reform. But whose job is it to fix them?
October 2001
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

As our story in this issue's Business of Government section (page 44) makes clear, local governments around the country are finally beginning to move on election reform. They are making investments in touch screens, optical-scanning devices and other new technology aimed at preventing a repeat of the 2000 presidential vote count debacle in Florida.

But as we all know, there is more to election reform than voting machines. And when it comes to the question of just how we change the rules to make the system more efficient and fairer, the progress toward consensus is proving agonizingly slow.

More than 1,500 bills dealing with the whole issue of election procedure were introduced this year in the legislatures of the 50 states, but few major ones made any serious progress toward enactment. Meanwhile, a blue-ribbon commission, chaired by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, has called for uniform statewide voter registration lists, provisional voting (which would allow contested ballots to be put aside pending assessment of their validity), and making Election Day a national holiday. Perhaps a dozen other academic and think-tank studies have plowed every square inch of the 2000 election field.

While the reports and studies show substantial agreement on the nature of the problems and on possible solutions, they disagree on two basic questions: Who gets to call the shots, and who pays the bills? Opposing camps continue to wrangle over whether the federal government should mandate a process and have the states follow it--or just provide general guidance and allow the states to craft their own approaches. There are equally deep divisions on whether the feds should use cash as an incentive for state-level reforms, or whether the states should be asked to come up with the money themselves.

The conduct of elections has always been one of the most difficult issues in the federal-state relationship. The U.S. Constitution gave state governments responsibility for prescribing the "times, place, and manner" for holding elections, even when the offices on the ballot are federal offices. On the other hand, the Constitution gave Congress authority to regulate the process. That authority has been used to provide the support for federal voting rights laws, and courts have long upheld the mixed federal-state management of the election process.

The fuzzy sharing of responsibilities scarcely stops there. The 2000 elections surprised even careful observers by revealing just how much state governments devolve operating decisions to the local level, and just how much those local decisions differ. In Florida last year, there was enormous local variation not only in voting technology but in procedures for resolving uncertainty--from counting chads to deciding who is eligible to vote. In Wisconsin, voting registers range from formal, well-maintained computer lists to handwritten papers kept in small towns by election officials who rely on being able to identify neighbors on sight.

On the crucial issues of control and financing of a modernized national election system, the two parties are in virtually complete disagreement. All 51 Democrats in the U.S. Senate, still stung by having the election slip away from Al Gore and determined to force reforms on the states, have joined to support a proposal by Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut to require states to meet national standards for ballot access, registration lists and voting machines-- and to force the states to pay for any improvements. Dodd got unanimous committee approval, which proved easy because Republicans boycotted the meeting.

Most Republicans are far more sympathetic to the views that emerged from a study conducted under the auspices of the National Conference of State Legislatures. NCSL recommended that each state should improve the design of ballots, provide better training for poll workers, adopt uniform standards for casting and counting votes, and make polling places easier for the disabled to access. But the study also warned that any election reform ought to build "on broad principles, not upon specific mandates which would lead to a `one size fits all' approach to elections." From this state-level perspective, the federal government ought to provide block grants to help the states develop their own new systems--not funding mechanisms that seek to impose any specific requirements.

Can the federal government content itself with gentle nudges toward best practices, financial incentives for basic reforms and mandates for equal access to the polls--or will disgruntled Democrats conclude they can't trust the states to get the system fixed? Will states patch up the flaws that emerged in glaring relief during last year's protracted vote-counting battles--or will local inertia block even the changes all sides seem to want?

These are the fundamental issues of the national election reform debate now taking place. Along with issues such as Internet taxation and Medicaid regulation, they represent the cutting edge of an emerging debate about how intergovernmental politics will respond to the technological challenges of the new millennium.