The Mockery of Democracy

The Mockery of Democracy

By René Redwood and Bernie Horn

Vol. 23, No. 2, 2001 pp. 4-5

As summer turn to autumn, so why should you care about hanging chads and butterfly ballots? Why should you care whether or not rich and poor precincts in the same county have identical voting equipment? Does it really matter to most Americans that in Florida’s majority black voting precincts, the residents were four times more likely to have their 2000 presidential election ballots disqualified than voters in majority white precincts?

Who care about provisional ballots for cases when there are disputes over the registration rolls? Why do we need voting rights posted at each polling place? Why should you be concerned that a firm scrubbed the Florida voter list so clean that it took away the right to vote from regular folks?

We should all care about voting reform. One day when you have just moved across town or to another state, your vote may also be in jeopardy.

Too many of yesterday’s disfranchised are still disfranchised today. Though election reform has been an important issue for decades, it occupies a different status because of the 2000 election.

We would like to believe that we can fix these new problems by implementing solutions to enfranchise the same population that has been historically disfranchised–the poor, new immigrants, the less educated, seniors, people with disabilities, and racial and ethnic minorities.

Given the paucity of legislation passed during the 2001 legislative sessions, however, we have to wonder about our will to right the wrongs of an elections that was an embarrassment to us all, and a denial of democracy for too many. It has been estimated that more than fifteen hundred election reform bills were introduced in the states this year. That figure is misleading. Less than 3 percent of those bills were designed to remedy the biggest mistakes of the 2000 election. As of early summer (May 2001), governors from fifteen states signed into law thirty-two bills passed by their legislatures.

Last year people around the world watched as Florida provided a textbook example of how not to run an election. Sadly, the methods employed in Florida are commonplace across the U.S. We have the same inaccurate voting machines in rural and urban areas, from Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles. Even former President Jimmy Carter, who oversees elections worldwide, could not intervene on behalf of the American people. His official group can only be involved in countries that have national voting standards, the U.S does not, Haiti does.

The National Commission on Federal Election Reform headed by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford recently issued a report calling for fixes to the election system that can be done in the states without federal government intervention, reforms such as uniform statewide standards for counting ballots, provisional voting, and restoration of voting rights to ex-felons–to name a few. The down side of this blue-ribbon panel’s effort is that the report merely offers recommendations with no authority to implement the changes it calls for. The Commission report omits mandatory required actions by the federal government even in federal elections; and opts for a voluntary role by state and federal governments for correct the deficiencies in the electoral system.

At every step in the election process, states discriminated against groups of voters, usually people of color. In some cases this bias was intentional, in other cases it was the product of gross negligence. In either case it is worth a brief recap to prevent that déjà vu experience in 2002.

The best-known obstacle to voters involves the various types of voting machines used in different counties. Last year, Florida counties used five different voting systems. Study after study has found that the worst systems were used in counties with a high percentage of minority voters.

Election officials have known for years that punch card ballots–the type used in most of Florida’s urban areas–count the vote inaccurately. In fact, the National Bureau of Standards recommended abandoning their use because of the “hanging chad” problem as early as 1988. In Miami-Dade County, where punch cards were used, one in twelve ballots had no vote for President counted.

Brevard County, Florida, provided a good example of the unequal quality of voting systems. When the county used punch cards in 1996, 2.6 percent of ballots for President were invalidated; after the county changed to high-tech optical scan equipment in 2000, only 0.27 percent of Presidential ballots were invalidated.

Even among the counties that used optical scan technology there were differences in quality. The only majority black county in the state, Gadsden County, used an unreliable type of optical scan equipment. As a result, Gadsden had the largest percentage of invalidated ballots in the state–one in eight voters had their presidential ballots disqualified.

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Many states need to eliminate obsolete voting machines. But repairing our nation’s democratic infrastructure will require more then just modernizing the ballot box. According to an assessment by The National Association of Secretary of States, the dilemmas present in the last election were not new and only three of the twenty-seven problem areas were technology or equipment.

Recount procedures–including those that the U.S. Supreme Court allowed in Florida–were unevenly used and unfair. Some counties never did the mandatory recount; instead of examining the ballots many counties only rechecked the counters on their machines. Nassau County (a Republican stronghold), on the other hand, did a real recount and then certified the original tally instead of the recounted numbers.

At the behest of the Florida Secretary of State (Republican Katherine Harris), many counties used an inaccurate database to “scrub” the names of felons from the voter rolls. But hundreds or thousands of innocent citizens were removed from the list of registered voters in the process. And when they went to vote, election officials turned them away. There was no process to contest election officials, no way to file a “provisional” ballot.

There was also no way for voters to know their rights at the polling place. In many cases, when voters made a mistake on their ballots and asked for a fresh one (which is their right), election officials turned them down.

After the election the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings in Florida and found that people of color were turned away from voting; evidence of intimidation was gathered throughout the state.

In short, the election made a mockery of democracy. Unfortunately, the methods employed in Florida are commonplace across America. In fact, more than two million Americans who went to the polls last November did not have their Presidential ballots counted because of faulty equipment, confusing ballots, and inaccurate registration lists. Another 3.9 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction. We have the same issues of fairness, the same charges of voter intimidation.

Both the Congress and state legislatures need to take action immediately.

Chadless elections. Old volting equipment has got ot go. The punch card, invented in 1890, should be banned as ballots. States should mandate the use of modern optical scan or electronic voting systems. From now on, every vote must count.

Uniform voting standards. rich and poor counties must be treated alike when it comes to the quality of voitng equipment and election procedures. States should require and finance uniform voting standards across all juridictions.

Uniform ballot designs. No more butterfly ballots. States should require statewide election officials to review and approve all baoolt designs to ensure clarity and uniformity.

Guaranteed provisional ballots. No one should be turned away from the polls because of a dispute over the registration rolls. States should offer provisional ballots for individuals who are not listed on the precinct’s voter registration list; these votes are kept in a way that eligibility to vote can be checked and each legal ballot counted.

Guaranteed replacement of spoiled ballots. Voters make legitimate mistakes. States should ensure that any voter who makes a mistake before casting a ballot is provided a replacement ballot.

Voters’ Bill of Rights. Empower votes with knowledge of their rights at the polls. States should post a Voters’ Bill of Rights at every polling place to explain the rights of voters, including right to register, vote, obtain replacements for spoiled ballots, use provisional ballots, and seek assistance.

Stop wrongful voter purging. No registered voter should be turned away because of sloppy list maintenance procedures. States should place strict statewide controls on manipulations of the voting rolls, and purging should be done through procedures that are fully open for inspection by the public.

End the patronage system of election administration. No more special favors for one political party. States should ensure that all state and local election boards are either bipartisan or nonpartisan.

Clear rules for recounts. Fair and precise procedures. States should review and reform their procedures for vote recounts.

Additionally, we need to repair the cracks in our democracy by making voter registration and voting easier; restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time; overhauling the campaign finance system; and training poll workers to ensure full knowledge of and compliance with applicable laws and policies.

Tomorrow’s election is determined by today’s action. Our failure to act will allow history to repeat itself. The flawed election of 2000 is not just a lesson from the past but a challenge for the future to assert the dignity of the people through the vote. We can choose a new course.

René Redwood is Senior Fellow of the Democracy and Technology Program at the Center for Policy Alternatives in Washington, D.C. Bernie Horn is Policy Director at the Center for Policy Alternatives.