Election procedures and equipment an embarrassment

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Tuesday, December 5, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — One of the few benefits that may derive from the Florida vote-counting mess is a serious effort to examine and improve election procedures in this country. For a nation that loves the latest in recreational and communications technology, the antiquated machinery by which we choose our elected officials is an embarrassment.

It would be nice to pretend this is unusual, but private-sector affluence contrasts with public-sector penury far too often. It was only two years ago when the House and Senate were up in arms about the decrepitude of the Internal Revenue Service’s computers, and were contrasting the clunky IRS data-processing systems with the ability of Lands’ End and other big mail-order firms to process phone transactions with ease.

Part of the problem is simply funding. More than a year ago, I attended a meeting of the National Association of Secretaries of State here. What attracted me was the release of a poll analyzing the reasons for nonvoting and the announcement of plans by these officials to spur voter turnout in their states. But the conversations that day also centered on the concerns of the secretaries of state — who are charged with the conduct of elections in most states — about the inadequate resources their legislatures and governors typically gave them to do their jobs.

It was easy to dismiss the talk as the usual bureaucratic grumbling. Few agency heads at any level of government believe they have the personnel or budget they really need.

But after what we have learned from election officials in Florida and what we heard from the expert witnesses in the Leon County Circuit Court hearing on Vice President Gore’s contest of the election results, there are real problems in the way our elections are run and counted.

Kimball Brace, an old friend who was one of those expert witnesses, said that 31 percent of the voters in this country use the same kind of punch-card technology that is at the heart of the Florida fiasco. This is equipment which, from all we have learned, clearly is harder for voters to use — especially if they are elderly or disabled — and harder for machines to count with precision.

Yet almost one-third of the country uses this kind of voting machine, one that seems to produce more skipped votes or nonvotes than the electronic touch-screen voting machines that I’ve gotten to know in my precinct in Virginia.

Now, there’s a big difference between the IRS problem and the voting machinery problem. The IRS is a federal agency, and Congress and the administration have begun to step up to their responsibility for improving its operations. But the Constitution gives the states full authority to regulate the conduct of elections — including elections for federal office.

That’s why the reflex reaction of some members of Congress that the answer to the kind of problems that have surfaced in Florida is a uniform ballot and uniform voting method is a big overreach. It’s an approach that will invite more resistance than cooperation — and for a good reason.

Elections are not the same from state to state, and therefore ballots cannot be the same. New Jersey, for example, elects one statewide official — its governor. Other states elect a dozen or more.

Half the states permit voters to write laws in the polling place; Oregon had 26 initiatives and referendums on the ballot last month. Ballots in those states must make space for such measures. Many states have permissive absentee voting rules and large numbers of absentee voters; others do not. It would make no sense for the federal government to try to mandate a single ballot form or vote-counting process for every state.

What would make sense — and what a number of members of Congress have suggested — is a bipartisan or nonpartisan commission to gather and evaluate (outside the pressures of a disputed election contest) what experience teaches about the efficiency and accuracy of various voting systems. That commission should include a strong representation of state and local election officials.

Such a commission could document what it would take — in money and equipment — to give this country a 21st century voting and vote-counting system. That burden should be shared between state and federal governments, because, as we’ve all learned to our sorrow, defects in just a few counties can cause a national migraine headache in a close election.

That would bring one benefit from all the bungling and bitterness.

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