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Friday, February 25, 2005

Federal Election Reform

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Several bills were introduced in Congress this week with the goal of making American elections better.

One bill, introduced by Nevada Senator John Ensign, would mandate voter-verified paper trails for all electronic ballots. If any discrepancy exists between the electronic record and the paper copy, the voter-verified paper copy trumps.

Another bill, introduced by Senators John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Boxer, is more expansive. Some highlights:
-in addition to paper trails, the bill requires recounts in two percent of all polling places or precincts;
-limits political activity by voting machine manufacturers and state elections officials;
-the bill makes Election Day a national holiday and requires states to allow early voting;
-the bill requires the Federal Election Assistance Commission to set standards to provide uniform access to voting machines.

These reforms are a great step towards ensuring that the quality of American elections matches the ambition of our democracy. There are four objectives that any election reform should further:
1) Accessibility: A standard for the number of voters per voting machine helps ensure that voting is easily accessible to all voters. Long lines for a hotdog at the ballpark may be acceptable, but not for picking the nation's leaders. Making Election Day a national holiday is another good idea. Most of us have had days at work where we couldn't afford more than a twenty minute lunch, if that even. We have holidays for folks like Washington, Lincoln, and King and for our fallen soldiers and veterans because of what they did or sacrificed for democracy. It makes sense to respect their achievements and sacrifices by devoting a day to democracy.

2) Accuracy: Our votes don't mean much if they're not cast and counted correctly. Touchscreen voting machines with voter-verified papertrails are the best way to make that happen although optical scan systems for absentee ballots are quite accurate too. Most of us have had a computer melt down on us at some point. A hard copy ensures that the voter is responsible for the official record of their vote, not some machine.

3) Auditability: Again, paper-trails ensure that the voter can check their vote to make sure that they and the machine have got it right. The 2% audit is a useful check to make sure the hodgepodge of voting systems which exist throughout the various states are all working.

4) Adaptability to different voting systems: the best technique for ensuring that the opinions and political viewpoints of all citizens are reflected is to use Instant Run-off Voting and Proportional Representation. Any election reform should try to make the way as smooth as possible for a transition to these systems. touchscreen voting machines (with voter-verified paper trails of course) are the most adaptable.

In short, the Ensign bill and the Boxer/Kerry/Clinton bill have some good ideas.

Another bill has been introduced that focuses on election fraud, the risk of which is often over-stated in making it more difficult for Americans to vote. This bill, which would start a pilot program in which voters dip a finger in indelible ink to make sure that they didn't vote more than once, is a great way to deal with the possibility of voter fraud. And, as Senator Mitch McConnell says, it would be a mark of pride for those who vote.

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