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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Getting Serious About Election Reform

Today Senators Clinton, Boxer and Kerry, along with Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, held a press conference to unveil an ambitious and very comprehensive election reform proposal, which they want enacted in time for the 2006 mid-term balloting. Thank God they moved quickly on this idea, instead of letting the memories of a second straight presidential election nearly winding up in the courts fade.The proposal itself is pretty far-reaching, including (1) making Election Day a federal holiday, (2) creating uniform rules for handling of provisional ballots, (3) requiring early voting opportunities, along with no-questions-asked absentee balloting, (4) boosting training for poll workers, (5) criminalizing voter intimidation tactics, (6) restoring voting rights for former felons, (7) requiring paper receipts for electronic voting machines, and (8) providing the federal funds to make sure this reform isn’t as shoddily impemented as its predecessor, the Help America Vote Act.The only quibble I have about the specifics of the proposal is that the sponsors should make sure to provide some leeway from the more prescriptive features of the bill for states with an exemplary record of fair and voter-friendly election administration. I’m thinking of Oregon, whose excellent administration of an all-mail-ballot system has produced remarkable voter turnout levels with virtually no complaints. And I’m also thinking of my home state of Georgia, where Secretary of State Cathy Cox (who may well be the Democratic candidate for governor in ’06) has done the best possible job of implementing a statewide touch-screen system. Yeah, I know, Diebold Conspiracy theorists don’t like that, but as Sam Rosenfeld recently explained in The American Prospect, Georgians seem to love the new system, and there have been no allegations of fraud or other irregularities there.The Diebold reference leads me to another point about election reform: Democrats need to go to considerable lengths to establish that this issue is not just about Democratic complaints concerning the outcome of the last two presidential elections, and that supporting election reform does not mean endorsing the views of those who believe the whole system has been completely rigged. Why? Because unlike a lot of Democratic proposals these days, this is one that we actually need to get enacted into law, because it will materially improve our chances of winning elections. And given the broad popularity of most of the election reforms contained in the new proposal, there is actually a fair chance that some if not most Republicans can be coerced, shamed or otherwise stampeded into going along. We definitely need to give it a shot, and keeping the message of election reform on a higher, nonpartisan, “good government” plane is essential to that task. If it doesn’t work, then fine, we can go after the GOP hammer-and-tongs at that point.Beyond that, I hope Democrats who embrace election reform are willing to link this issue to a broader political reform agenda: redistricting reform, lobbying reform, corporate subsidy reform, budget reform, ethics reform, and a recommitment to campaign finance reform. The current system ain’t benefitting Democrats, and ain’t benefitting the country, so we should throw caution to the wind and make it definitively clear that there’s little about the current system we are not willing to take a serious look at and, if appropriate, change.So: I enthusiastically applaud the sponsors of the Count Every Vote Act as trailblazers in what we can only hope will be a whole new theme in Democratic politics from Washington to every state and city. And I hope those bloggers who like to call themselves “Reform Democrats” will get specific about what that means and weigh in with what JFK used to call “great vigor.”

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