Election Reform: Going Anywhere?

By Wendy S. Johnson

Vol. 23, No. 2, 2001 p. 3

The thirty-five days following the 2000 presidential election stunned a watchful and anxious nation as we learned about the severe ineptness and unreadiness of an election process that could not handle a closely-called election. Our attention riveted on the panhandle state as the challenge to recount the presidential race in key Florida counties moved from the elections board to the courts. Under a national magnifying glass, a pattern of severe voter neglect began to emerge, not as the exception, but the rule. Florida citizens' anxiety turned to distress and anger when the news registered that many of their votes had not been counted, had been thrown into doubt, or just thrown out due to a host of inadequate record-keeping oversights and voting machine failures. Nationally, the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project, in a study released July 2001, estimated that "between four and six million presidential votes were lost in the 2000 election" due to problems with voter registration, polling place practices, and ballot flaws. The final blow to voter confidence was wielded by the U.S. Supreme Court with its politicized decision to cease all recounts because of a lack of agreed upon standards.

In January as our new Supreme Court-declared President George W. Bush changed zip codes, legislatures across the nation began their sessions with high expectations toward changing election reform procedures and recapturing voter confidence.

In the ten months since the November 2000 election, a count of another sort has emerged: some 1,500 election bills were introduced by lawmakers across the country. Good. Change is imminent. But wait. When you look more closely at the few bills that actually passed and start asking questions about when implementation will take place and what will be done, the responses are as weak as the bills themselves.

This edition of Southern Changes delves into the status of election reform in twelve states in the American South. This review comes at a time when the South is on the cusp of yet another political transition. A time when two of the staunchest symbols of Southern conservatism, Jessie Helms and Strom Thurmond will not run for re-election. A time when voting districts are being realigned due to the new Census counts with new seats gained and old seats lost. Just as Congress has mandated that population counts are made every ten years so that necessary corrections are made to our voting districts, the November 2000 event demands multi-level mandates that will provide extensive correction to our elections process.

Finger-pointing and excuse-making leave voters in many states with nothing new to look forward to in November 2001 and potentially 2002. Lisa Rab's "Budget Woes and Partisan Politics Block Major Changes to Election Law," assesses election reform bills in twelve Southern states.

Catherine Wall's essay, "Elections Reform Needs Prompt Federal Action," calls for leadership to enact immediate and effective election standards. As federal intervention runs up against states' rights, the fate of election reform is in the air.

"The Florida and Georgia Experience" article examines the strengths and limitations of two of the most comprehensive election reform bills passed by Southern legislatures.

Many legislatures have claimed a preoccupation with redistricting and too much red ink as obstacles to any immediate and significant change. But a cycle of opportunity has been squandered. Legislative uncertainty and lack of will to make extensive corrections to our voting process is unacceptable. The unfettered right to vote, a keystone of our democracy, demands a higher respect and accountability.

A "political ordeal unlike any in living memory," wrote the Ford-Carter Electoral Reform Commission about the 2000 election. Doing nothing or not enough provides more reasons for citizens not to vote, thereby deepening the public's alienation from the electoral process. As states prepare for the November 2001 local and state elections, many of the same questions and issues brought to light some ten months ago will again confront voters.

This issue of Southern Changes benefited from the investigative, research, and writing skills of two outstanding interns, Lisa Rab and Catherine Wall. Rab is in her last year as a journalism student at Emory University and Wall is a second year law student at the University of Texas. Feature articles by Rab and Wall yield a comprehensive overview of the status of election reform, real and proposed, across the American South.

Wendy S. Johnson is executive director of the Southern Regional Council.