By Donna Brazile
President George W. Bush’s main foreign policy goal is to spread the fire of democracy in every corner of the globe. In almost every foreign policy address, senior members of the Administration speak of the power of freedom and democracy in giving oppressed people everywhere a seat at the table.
“Americans, of all people, should not be surprised by freedom’s power,” the President has said. He’s right, of course. And on the basis of his words, I would expect the President to lead the cause of democracy here at home, especially the cause of electoral reform and cleaning up our dysfunctional election system. Unfortunately, he has not shown much interest.
In order to strengthen democracy here at home while continuing to export it abroad, Democratic campaign officials must make election reform a priority. Voter confusion, delays, equipment malfunction and misinformation continue to prevent many citizens from participating in the electoral process.
Democrats should support election reform on principle, and it can’t be presumed that it will always and everywhere help us politically. But given that historically Democratic constituencies are disproportionately affected by voting irregularities, the right thing to do will also improve Democratic prospects in a nation so closely divided along partisan lines.
No, it is not enough to have a good candidate, a brilliant campaign plan, money in the bank and a talented and energetic group of seasoned campaign workers and volunteers. It is also necessary to understand the fundamentals of what constitutes a vote, who is behind the local election regulations and what rules apply to counting ballots in the event of a close election.
As a Democratic strategist, I witnessed first-hand the electoral irregularities surrounding the 2000 Presidential election when my former boss, Al Gore, won the popular vote but lost the election following a Supreme Court decision which halted a Florida recount. Experts agree that the 2004 national election was again rife with election anomalies including, but not limited to: excessively long lines at the polls (particularly in predominantly poor and minority precincts); insufficient and defective voting equipment; voter suppression and intimidation tactics targeting young voters, minorities and first time voters; unlawful purging of eligible voters from voting lists; and massive confusion over the issuance and tabulation of provisional ballots, absentee ballots and ballots cast by U.S. citizens living overseas.
An investigation by Democratic staff of the House Judiciary Committee disclosed massive and unprecedented voter irregularities in Ohio surrounding the 2004 Presidential election as the result of misconduct by Ohio’s Secretary of State, Ken Blackwell, and negligence and incompetence among some local election officials.
After two close presidential elections, as well as state and local races that were too close to call, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) launched its own in-depth investigation of Ohio’s 2004 election. “Democracy at Risk: The 2004 Election in Ohio,” revealed that many Ohio voters were dissatisfied with their electoral experience. From antiquated voting machines in urban minority precincts, to untrained poll workers who turned away thousands of citizens who showed up at the wrong polling sites, to the unusually high number of provisional ballots, our study indicated that electoral inefficiencies left Ohio voters feeling cheated or disenfranchised in a very close presidential race.
As Chair of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute, I was astounded to learn just how dysfunctional our electoral system has become and why this is a serious impediment to successful elections for Democratic candidates at all levels. It’s time for Democrats to get smart about election administration and take an active role in cleaning up laws and adopting new ones to protect every citizen’s right to vote.
The strength of our democracy depends on the faith of every voter in the integrity of our elections. But it is obvious from the voices of those who stood in long lines in Ohio and elsewhere that confidence in the integrity of our electoral system is waning, even as democracy blooms abroad.
The right of all citizens to vote, and to have that vote accurately counted, is the bedrock on which our democracy is founded. Nothing is more fundamental to our freedom than public confidence in the integrity of basic democratic institutions. We used to be the envy of the world because our elections were hard fought, but the results were rarely questioned. This is no longer the case.
It is America’s calling to defend and expand liberty, and to take an honest look at who, and how many, were denied the right to vote in 2004. Given past endeavors by some Republicans to marginalize voting rights concerns, it is up to Democrats to push for the adoption of tough new standards to ensure that no American is ever denied the right to vote.
For starters, the Democratic Party has worked tirelessly in urging the U.S. Congress and the Bush Administration to fully fund the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and to assist states in improving election administration. While most states are attempting to comply with HAVA’s mandates, there is confusion and a lack of consistency regarding the implementation of some of HAVA’s requirements and many states are out of compliance.
Last year, a bipartisan Commission on Federal Election Reform co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker released a report recommending, among other things, that “Congress should pass a law requiring that all voting machines be equipped with a voter-verifiable paper audit trail….(a) to increase citizens’ confidence that their vote will be counted accurately, (b) to allow for a recount, (c) to provide a backup in cases of loss of votes due to computer malfunction, and (d) to test — through a random selection of machines — whether the paper result is the same as the electronic result”.
Twenty-six states have now implemented requirements for voter-verified paper records and 13 more and the District of Columbia have such a requirement pending. In order to assure equal protection under the law, the independent auditability of the vote count must be consistently and legitimately protected in all states. We must reject the privatization of the vote count through the use of privately controlled electronic devices running on trade-secret-protected and undisclosed software. This practice is fundamentally at odds with government of the people, by the people and for the people. We must demand regulations that mandate transparent election administration, requiring voting equipment vendors to disclose their source code so that the equipment can be examined by third parties.
In addition to requiring a voter-verified paper record for every vote cast, we must urge lawmakers to require a significant percentage of random, unannounced, hand-counted audits of voter-verified paper records as a check on the results reported by electronic equipment.
We must work with local election officials to prohibit voting machines from having wireless or Internet connections and require that all voting equipment be used exclusively for voting purposes. Election officials must make certain that all eligible voters are able to cast their votes without impediment, regardless of physical or language limitation and that ballots are easy to comprehend and voting equipment is uncomplicated to use. Regulations must be adopted mandating that all voting machines used in local, state and federal elections – including, but not limited to direct recording electronic touch-screen machines – be certified as accurate and tamper-proof.
Local party officials must effectively train election monitors and poll watchers to enforce local election laws and procedures. We must continue to advocate for the adoption of election policies which require every ballot to be in a form that voters can read, verify and manually place in the ballot box.
In the post-2000 campaign environment, we must work with local officials to ensure that manual countywide recount procedures are in place before the vote is certified when manual vote tabulation detects a strong possibility of election equipment tampering.
Party leaders must work with state and local lawmakers to adopt regulations which preclude election officials from substituting efficiency for accuracy, so that voters can trust that every vote will be counted as cast.
It is vitally important that campaign personnel review the implementation of all HAVA guidelines, which protect voters from unlawful purges; reinforce the entitlement of voters to cast provisional ballots in federal elections; clarify the proper places and procedures for casting provisional ballots and establish a presumption in favor of validity; and clearly mandate that provisional ballots shall be counted in the most generous possible manner in every state, thereby maximizing and equalizing the value of the right to cast one.
Every Democratic campaign must work with state and local government officials prior to Election Day to ensure the equitable distribution of voting equipment and supplies to all polling places. This is crucial in order to avoid a repeat of those circumstances in 2004 when voters left polling stations out of sheer frustration due to excessively long lines and malfunctioning voting machinery.
It is also imperative that Democrats actively call upon the Republican Party to help stop voter fraud, voter suppression and intimidation, including the use of deceptive practices such as changing polling sites and placing off duty security guards at polling stations explicitly to harass certain voters on Election Day. Although it is an uphill battle, we must be relentless in pressuring federal and state lawmakers to outlaw these bogus practices.
While President Bush champions freedom and democracy elsewhere, I hope that Democrats will continue their call for clean, transparent and honest elections here at home. Before freedom marched in Baghdad, it took a stand here in America. Let’s continue to fight for the right of all Americans to vote, to participate in elections to select those who will govern a free people and yes, to hold those elected accountable to our democratic principles and ideals.
By Donna Brazile