Voting and the States: Can Anyone Here Count?

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Several Florida counties delayed reporting their results while election workers struggled to decipher votes

In the bewildering days after the 2000 presidential election, only one thing seemed clear: the American voting system was in need of a drastic overhaul. Across the country, elected officials promised their weary constituents new voting machines, better registration systems and anti-fraud measures — all to be put in place well before Election Day, 2004.

Now, just four weeks before the end of the legislative session, it looks like we may have been suckered by another empty election year promise. Just two weeks ago, the Florida gubernatorial primary vote was marred by inaccurate vote counts and poor communication at polling places — despite a $32 million overhaul since 2000; the state is now asking for more money to upgrade again before the November elections.

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Meanwhile, at the federal level, time is running out on a different deadline: the current legislative session ends October 4th, and with it any reasonable chance of making critical changes to the election system before the next presidential election.

Two years ago, election reform legislation was on the fast track. In the weeks and months following the 2000 Florida debacle, Congress was spurred by public outrage, and members took to the floor of the House and Senate and whisked two bills through the chambers, each promising clearer voting procedures, more qualified poll workers, better vote recording mechanisms. Today, the House and Senate versions sit stalled in conference committee, where Democrats and Republicans bicker over relatively minor points.

"We're very close on the election reform action; it would be a shame if they didn't pass it on time because the differences are so slight," says James Thurber, professor of government and director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential studies at American University. A few points of conflict: Democrats want protections for disabled voters who may be excluded from non-accessible polling places. Republicans are more concerned with cutting down on voter fraud, pushing for new voter-identification requirements and stricter guidelines for mail-in registration.

Unfortunately for voters, even those relatively insignificant differences may be too much for this overloaded Congress to overcome. Since 9/11, congressional attention, like everyone else's, has snapped away from domestic policy and toward the war on terror. There are domestic issues on the table, says Thurber, but they are evergreen, high profile bills, like Medicare reform and bankruptcy protection measures. Issues, in other words, that directly affect this administration, says Susan Tolchin, professor of public policy and an expert on elections at George Mason University. "This is not an issue that has hurt Republicans so far," says Tolchin. "Look at what happened in Florida last week — the White House couldn't care less which Democrat runs against Jeb Bush. So there's no reason for the President to get involved. He didn't campaign on this issue, and it's simply not a priority for him."

The thorny mess of election reform, ironically, seems to inflame voters less than questions of personal health or economic security. "If election reform doesn't pass in time to affect 2004," says Tolchin, "the vast majority of the public will just scratch their heads and move on. There's just no critical mass pushing for election reform."

Perhaps that's because most voters don't know the breadth of the system's failure. According to a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, between four and six million votes were lost on November 7, 2000, out of roughly 100 million cast. Many belonged to Florida voters, but people in other states, including Georgia, Illinois, Idaho and New York were also cheated out of representation. Most of the lost votes, according to researchers, are attributable to broken voting machines, poorly informed polling place volunteers and denial of access to polls.

Federal lawmakers can't seem to make anything happen, so why don't the states step up to the plate? They're trying, in states like Maryland, Georgia and the beleaguered Florida, implementing changes piecemeal, but they simply don't have the funding for the sweeping overhaul most voting experts agree is necessary. Only a federal bill can give them what they need.

Last week's gubernatorial fiasco in Florida may have been a blessing in disguise for proponents of election reform. The state's latest voting glitches, which left the results of the Democratic primary for governor up in the air for days, refocused lawmakers and the public on the system's inherent problems and the dire need for corrections — and an influx of cash.

"What we saw in Florida during the gubernatorial primary puts more pressure on Congress to act," says Thurber.

Even in the worst-case scenario, there is a glimmer of hope, adds Thurber. If Congress doesn't move in time to approve legislation before heading home in October, they could return after the November elections for a somewhat unusual lame-duck session, bringing back all current members of Congress, including those just ousted, for a last stab at passing the bill.