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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Is Your Vote Being Counted? - by Neal Peirce

State election officials, reports State-line.org, have become "a new flashpoint for bitter partisan struggles over how balloting is run."

It's as if the rancor engendered by the razor-thin 2000 presidential vote in Florida, when Republican Secretary of State (and Bush campaign co-chair) Katherine Harris was accused of raw partisan decisions, has never abated. Indeed, it seems to have spawned a new era of deep distrust in American politics.

Polls show confidence in the integrity of elections, overseen in 36 states by secretaries of state, has plummeted from pre-2000 levels. In 1996, there were just 108 cases of challenged elections around the U.S.; by 2004, the number had tripled, to 361, according to a survey by election expert Richard Hasen of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

The Florida 2000 debacle and the "Bush v. Gore" court case decided by a partisanly divided Supreme Court have unleashed a wave of court suits in close elections — "election law as political strategy," Hasen suggests.

Continued ...click on "Print Article and/or Read More" below >>>
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Adding to the perils: More than 80 percent of voters will be using electronic voting machines, a third of precincts for the first time, this autumn. The replacement of outdated voting machines with computer-based equipment, pushed along by federal assistance under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, is good news. But suspicions of manipulation run high and there has been little time for careful ironing out of computer bugs. In Maryland's September primary, technological glitches played a role in long lines and delayed vote counts.

So extreme are the levels of distrust and suspicions of outright vote tampering that some observers are suggesting delays and court actions might cause a serious backup in deciding what party will control Congress after next month's elections.

And already, secretaries of state from Arkansas to California, Connecticut to Georgia, have come under fire on suspicions ranging from discriminatory purging of voter rolls to using federal money from the Help America Vote Act for partisan political purposes.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, endorses a proposal to remove election responsibilities from elected secretaries of state. The logical substitute would be a chief elections officer and board appointed by each governor, the officials' high professional standing and impartiality assured by requiring a super-majority (perhaps 75 percent) vote of confirmation by legislatures.

Vast majorities of us would likely approve: Polling shows less than 1 percent support the current system of elections governed by a single elected official.

Combine that with the idea of a federal elections commission empowered to create minimum standards that states must follow to assure honest elections, and there's a bright opening to develop a professionalized cadre of national and state election officials able to start restoring Americans' confidence in their election processes.

But political bodies rarely welcome their own demise. The nation's secretaries of state made that clear last year when their national association recommended killing off the federal government's advisory Election Assistance Commission created under the Help America Vote Act.

Nor are we hearing any groundswell of support for the entirely logical idea of universal voter registration in the U.S. Presently, we have what Hasen calls the "hyper-federalization" of American election administration — 50 states and tens of thousands of little units setting dates, hours, times and conditions for voter registration, purging or not purging voter lists their own way.

Instead, the federal government could work with states to create a national registry of all American citizens. All would be entitled to vote, but with a fingerprint check each Election Day to prevent double voting or other fraud.

Yet one sighs and wonders — will real election reform get caught in the political underbrush, and like our long overdue elimination of the Electoral College, remain unsolved because of inertia on the one hand and obfuscation tactics of special interests on the other?

Let's hope not. As this autumn's elections are likely to illustrate yet again, the moment for radical change to reduce today's level of virulent mistrust can't come too soon.

Neal Peirce's column appears alternate Mondays on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company
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source:
Is Your Vote Being Counted?

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