April 26, 2001

Little Change Forecast for Election Process


David Scull for The New York Times

WASHINGTON, April 25 — Despite the outcry over last year's presidential election, the next national election will probably occur under virtually the same circumstances as the last, with the same unreliable voting systems and under the same dizzying hodgepodge of rules that vary from county to county across the nation. [registrars, states rights,]

The reasons vary, from a lack of cash to partisan positioning and difficulties in interpreting the United States Supreme Court decision that finally ended the presidential contest. Those studying how to overhaul the system have found that it is exceedingly complex.

"There is no technical fix to the problem," said Thomas Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "There's no possibility of a uniform national ballot. There are contradictory findings on the accuracy of different voting equipment." [table, states rights]

And so far, there is no money. At a hearing on Capitol Hill, state elections officials today painted a bleak picture of the improvements they might be able to achieve by the midterm elections in 2002, particularly if Congress and the White House continued to sidestep the issue.

Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of state, whom some voters blamed more than they blamed the voting machines for last year's debacle in her state, spoke for her fellow secretaries of state today when she challenged Congress to come up with cash for new machines.

"Currently in Florida, and I suspect many other states, we have the will but not the financial wherewithal," Ms. Harris said. "The problems affecting the American electoral system cannot be solved by local and state governments alone. And as much as we all appreciate words of encouragement, they will fail to make our system of elections fairer, freer, more accurate and more accessible."

J. Kenneth Blackwell, the Ohio secretary of state, said election reform was one of the first casualties of the economic downturn, which has undercut state budgets.

"While election reform continues to have widespread public support, the resources to implement these costly upgrades are few or nonexistent," Mr. Blackwell said. "Dollars for voting system upgrades, while desperately needed, are competing with funds for mental health services, road construction, welfare and Medicaid."

To be sure, states have clearly been eager to immunize themselves from the problems that afflicted Florida last year. Lawmakers have introduced more than 1,500 election reform bills in state legislatures this year. And just today, the Florida House passed measures that would ban voting machines that use punch cards and would enable counties to borrow money to buy optical scanners before the 2002 elections. The Senate will consider similar legislation this week.

Tim Storey, an elections specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said 120 such bills had been passed in the 10 states where the legislatures had adjourned for the year.

Georgia has taken the lead for comprehensive action. Prodded by Cathy Cox, the secretary of state, Gov. Roy Barnes has signed legislation to place touch-screen voting systems, which work like automatic teller machines, in all precincts. The law calls for pilot projects of the systems this fall and then replacement of the punch-card systems used by about one-third of Georgia voters by the 2002 elections and installation of new machines in all precincts by 2004.

But Georgia, too, is waiting for money.

"The bill says, Do it — subject to funding," Ms. Cox said. "Our State Legislature hasn't funded it because they are waiting to see how much money the feds will put up."

Maryland, too, has passed a bill requiring the state and counties to split the costs of a new system.

Most of the bills passed in other states are not likely to make big impressions on voters. Virginia, for example, has set standards for reviewing punch card ballots that are not accepted by a counting machine because chads are dangling. South Dakota has enacted a law to implement a statewide voter database that will allow more efficient administration on Election Day.

Researchers have reached conflicting conclusions on what technology is best. Even if they could agree on a machine with the lowest error rate, would voters easily adapt? Examinations of ballots in Florida show that some people failed to register their choices, whether from ignorance or hostility to the candidates or the system.

Elections officials are reluctant to formalize means to call voters' errors to their attention at the polling place, for fear of violating the privacy of the ballot.

Newspapers conducting recounts of the Florida vote seem to have only added to the confusion. Published accounts so far have found the ballots so confounding and the rules in Florida so patchwork that they have not been able to determine with certainty the number of votes won by George W. Bush or Al Gore.

Moreover, ideas that once seemed panaceas — Internet voting, scrapping the Electoral College, even uniform poll-closing hours nationwide — have been discredited. And those with a stake in the process — political parties and officials from federal, state and county governments — are lapsing into predictable squabbles over advantage and turf.

Looming over these nuts-and-bolts questions are important unknowns, like whether the Supreme Court ruling that ended the presidential election applies to future elections.

Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission and an adviser to Senator John McCain's presidential campaign, considered the ruling and said: "The majority of the court said, essentially, `This is a railroad ticket for this day, this train only, this has no precedential value.' Personally, I don't think they get away with that."

"Once you use the equal protection argument, which everyone thought was a reach, it's there," Mr. Potter added. "Does equal protection require some degree of standardization, and what is that degree? Is it statewide ballots? Is it only statewide recount systems? The lawsuits say no, it's the same type of machinery or access to low error rates. The question we're all walking around — because we don't know the answer — is, to what extent are the courts going to upset the apple cart by saying the way you've always done business is no longer constitutionally permissible?"

Citing the Supreme Court decision, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit last week in federal court in California — its fourth such suit in the nation since the election — alleging that that state's multiple voting systems created discriminatory results and that its lack of legally binding standards for recounts aggravated the unconstitutional disparities.

Setting national or state standards for ballots and recounts might have seemed a logical response to the mess in Florida. But it is becoming increasingly clear that elections officials are resistant to giving up turf. And untangling the roles of federal, state and local officials is emerging as a central obstacle.

Sharon Priest, secretary of state in Arkansas and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said she could accept statewide standards but she rejected national standards.

"Frankly," Ms. Priest said, "we don't have to have the feds tell us everything that we have to do."

She gave perhaps the gloomiest assessment on the future of election reform:

"Unless there's a real uprising on the part of people in this country who will call their congressmen and senators and say, `Elections are important to us and democracy comes at a price, and we're willing to pay that price — do something!' then I'm not sure, running into budgets now, that anything's going to get done."

Home | Back to Politics | Search | Help Back to Top