Reform Now for The Future

September 28, 2005

The new Carter-Baker Commission report acknowledges that Americas electoral system is out of control

By ANDREW GUMBEL, Los Angeles City Beat

This is a hell of time to try to start a national conversation on election reform. Whole chunks of the country are disappearing under the strain of severe weather and official incompetence, the federal government is busy bankrupting itself to cover its own rear end, the war in Iraq is as intractable as ever, and the next significant elections are not until the mid-terms in November 2006.

Yet right in the middle of this, we have the arrival of the final report from the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, and its simply too important to ignore. The last time the commission met, right after the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, it was co-chaired by Carter and his fellow ex-President Gerald Ford, and led directly to the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act " a piece of legislation that might have been a lot more effective if its deadlines had been respected and its mandates for tougher federal oversight had been properly funded.

The reason the Carter-Baker commission was convened at all was a general acknowledgement that the system remains deeply dysfunctional and that the problems, if anything, have multiplied since 2000. Sure, HAVA had its good points: It forced states to allow provisional balloting as a way of preventing eligible voters from being denied their rights because of incompetence or bureaucratic mischief, and it encouraged the adoption of early voting, an important element in the sharply increased turnout in the Bush-Kerry race of last November.

But HAVA also promised way too much money to pay for new electronic machinery that was insufficiently tested, subject to far too little scrutiny, and open to way too many undetectable abuses and errors. It failed to come to grips with the kinds of problems we saw in Ohio, Florida, and elsewhere in the presidential election: discriminatory rulings by overtly partisan election supervisors, misallocation of voting machines to make it harder to vote in Democrat-heavy precincts than in Republican-heavy ones, insufficient back-ups to verify machine-tabulated vote totals, obfuscation and secrecy surrounding the counting process itself, including the spurious invocation of non-existent terrorist threats, and on and on.

In an atmosphere of mounting cynicism about the political willingness for reform, not many people expected much of the Carter-Baker commission. There were complaints that its public sessions werent anywhere near public enough, and that its choice of expert witnesses was too restrictive. Troubling to many people was the appointment of James Baker. How could the same man who coordinated the Bush campaigns post-election strategy in Florida in 2000 " essentially, an exercise in seizing the wafer-thin Republican lead in the initial returns and clinging to it by fair means or foul " have any positive contribution to make to the cause of equitable voter reform? Wasnt this tantamount to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank?

Personally, I had no problem with Bakers appointment. In fact, in hard political terms, it struck me as a real opportunity. Here was a man who had the ear and the trust of the Bush White House, so anything he signed on to stood a reasonable chance of actually coming to pass. My bigger problem was with the whole bipartisan structure of the commission. Given the ignominious history of election management in this country, it seemed entirely illusory to expect the combination of one prominent Republican and one prominent Democrat to produce enlightenment and fairness and a just representation of the public interest. Hoping for progressive electoral reform from two parties with long histories of contempt for the electorate and for ballot-box integrity is a bit like inviting rival gangs of thieves to join forces and advise you how best to secure your worldly goods.

For this reason, above all, the final document is a rather incoherent affair, with fine upstanding principles paraded in certain parts and colossal betrayals of democratic interests in others. Much of the criticism " indeed, much of the mainstream media coverage " has focused on the commissions recommendation of a super-stringent voter ID requirement as part of a general clean-up of the woefully inaccurate voter registration rolls. This is indeed a terrible idea, playing directly into a partisan Republican agenda. For the 12 percent of the electorate who do not happen to have drivers licenses " predominantly the old and the poor, who dont tend to be big GOP fans, if they vote at all " the ID requirement would act as a heavy deterrent if not an out-and-out mechanism for disenfranchisement.

As Tova Wang of The Century Foundation and others have correctly pointed out, fraud and misrepresentation by individual voters is nowhere near as big a problem as gross ineptitude and malice perpetrated by the election authorities themselves. There has to be a better way to compile an accurate nationwide voter database, and indeed there are plenty of less repressive ideas out there " for example, the notion that voter qualification could be tracked through social security numbers.

That said, Carter-Baker contains a surprisingly large number of encouraging recommendations. The authors are anxious to see uniform standards imposed nationwide on such questions as the processing of registration requests and provisional balloting. Inconsistent rules and practices from state to state, and from county to county, are one of the major causes of dysfunction in American elections, not least because they encourage undue political influence-peddling. The uneven, politically motivated application of provisional balloting rules in 2004 was a textbook example.

The report also calls for the introduction of a voter-verifiable paper trail on all electronic voting machines " something that still leaves open some loopholes for mischief but nevertheless represents an important symbolic statement on the importance of recounts. Carter and Baker want domestic and international election observers to be admitted as a matter of course. That too would be an unequivocally positive development; the best way to clean up any system, after all, is to shed light on its dark places.

What is saddest about the report is the commissioners powerlessness to change many of the most fundamental things that need changing. It is utterly anomalous that certain U.S. states " especially in the South " continue to disenfranchise ex-felons who have fully paid off their debt to society. But the best this report can do is ask, pretty please, if those states would be so kind as to change their minds. Aint going to happen, certainly not in Republican-controlled states where most ex-felons are poor and/or black and likely to lean Democrat. Likewise, the United States is virtually alone among established democracies in failing to provide its electoral candidates with equal, unpaid access to the broadcast media. But the report merely encourages the networks to provide five minutes of serious coverage of the issues every night in the month running up to any given election. Dont hold your breath.

The problem for any electoral commission, in the end, is that no reform agenda can entirely thwart the baser instincts of a political system that has for too long regarded elections as a form of elemental struggle in which rules are not nearly as important as clinching victory. Local officials are much too inclined to look out for their political interests first, and worry about democratic accountability only as a distant second. How else to explain our own Conny McCormack, L.A. Countys registrar-recorder, lobbying actively against transparent auditing of electronic voting machinery, as she has in leading the opposition to state senator Debra Bowens reform bill, SB 370? Theres something truly twisted about a prominent election official campaigning against the integrity of the very system she is supposed to be defending. We still have a long, long road to ride.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only. Citizens for Election Integrity - Minnesota has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article, nor is Citizens for Election Integrity - Minnesota endorsed or sponsored by the originator