As we look forward to another presidential election in the autumn–one that could be very close–political observers are beginning to wake up to the fact that relatively little has been done to reform the creaking, state-controlled, crazy-quilt system of election administration whose shortcomings were so graphically demonstrated in 2000.
In the wake of the 2000 fiasco, Congress enacted the Help American Vote Act (HAVA), but the reform machinery it put it place, the bipartisan Election Assistance Commission, has spent much of its brief existence wandering in the political wilderness. That’s the upshot of a depressing AP story by Deborah Hastings yesterday.
The lede tells you everything you need to know:
It was not an auspicious beginning. The year was 2004 and the newest federal agency had no desks, no computers, and no office to put them in. It had neither an address nor a phone number. Early meetings convened in a Starbucks near a Metro stop in downtown Washington.
Somehow, Congress had neglected to fund the Election Assistance Commission, a small group with a massive task: coordinating one of the most sweeping voter reform packages in decades.
It hasn’t gotten any better of late:
In the run up to November’s presidential election, the commission continues to grapple with hot-button topics such as how to test and certify voting machines. Voting advocates say the lack of such standards contributes to malfunctioning touch-screen equipment and long waits, as evidenced in Ohio in 2004, when presidential results were delayed for days.
The agency remains stalemated on other important issues, including whether states can require people to provide proof of citizenship before they can register to vote — an especially touchy subject exacerbated by a Supreme Court decision this spring upholding Indiana law demanding voters present a government-issued photo ID before casting a ballot.
Both past and present commissioners complain they were granted little power to force states to implement reforms, and that they often are battered by the brutal nature of partisan politics in the nation’s capital.
“It was the worst experience of my life. It was obvious going in that we weren’t going to accomplish much,” says former chairman DeForest Soaries, a Baptist minister who served as New Jersey’s secretary of state under GOP Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Soaries, also a Republican, quit the commission 15 months after taking the job in January 2004.
“No one took the agency seriously,” Soaries said. “All of the passion and all of the commitment to ensure that 2000 would never be repeated — that was all Washington theatrics.
A big part of the problem, of course, is that the two parties approach the issue of election reform from vastly different perspectives; Democrats are typically concerned about vote suppression, while Republicans continue to claim, without much evidence, that voting fraud is the bigger issue.
In my own opinion, the obsession of many Democrats with electronic voting systems–how votes are counted–has distracted attention from the more pervasive problem of how voters exercise their right to cast ballots in the first place. Thus, we are heading into another national election in which it will be largely up to private groups to police illegitimate state and local practices, including selective purges of voting rolls, capricious last-minute changes in polling sites, the deliberate underdeployment and understaffing of precincts, and minority voter intimidation.
We’d better get ready for all that, without any help from Washington.