Stateline Story

Senate Committee Hears Calls For Electoral Reform

Georgia did not make headlines during the 2000 presidential election. But if its voting systems and polling place practices had endured the same media and legal examination as Florida, it would have fared no better or perhaps even worse.

That's the opinion of Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who Wednesday (3/7) appeared before the US Senate Committee on Commerce , Science and Transportation. Cox said she was both grateful and alarmed after the 2000 election. Grateful that President Bush's margin of victory exceeded the margin of error at the polls and alarmed that the Peach State showed all of the same symptoms of election dysfunction as Florida.

Hanging chads, voters turned away from polls, uninformed poll workers, high rates of spoiled ballots and antiquated and inaccurate voting were all seen in Georgia, a post-election study found.

"We know very well that, yes, it could happen in Georgia," Cox said. "And the odds are that sometime, perhaps sometime very soon, it will happen in my home state unless steps are taken now that upgrade our equipment and procedures."

Congress will consider more than 30 election reform bills in the coming months. State lawmakers have introduced more than 1,200. Just as most counties and cities have their own methods of conducting elections, every group that testified at the Commerce Committee hearing offered their own view on what needed to be done.

Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh offered a note of caution.

"Our system did provide for the orderly transfer of power contemplated by our Constitution," Thornburgh said. "The November election may not have been pretty, and the results may not have come quickly, but quick fixes and convenience are not the measure of democracy."

There was strong disagreement from Rep. Connie Meek, D-Fla., whose district encompasses some of south Florida's election hotspots.

Meek said preventing another "catastrophe" will be this Congress' most vital work. Without it, she said, the nation's minority population will lose all faith in the democratic process.

"Our serious, desperate pleas about the disenfranchisement of our citizens, and the disqualification of our ballots, and the violations of election laws were ignored, delayed, denied and dismissed as mere irregularities, and in many cases, trivialized or reduced to jokes," Meek said. "It is a failure of government and our electoral system when courts, the laws and government officials do not do everything possible to insure that every vote is counted."

Others who testified reflected the varied interests of their constituencies:  

  • Mary Jane O'Gara, a member of the American Association of Retired Persons' Board of Directors, said the 30 million member group supports upgrades in voting system technology, large-type instructions and ballots and central registration systems that allow voters to verify their status and polling locations.
  • Paul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza a civil rights group representing Latinos, said his organization will push for accurate translations on ballots, improved voting equipment and computerized voter registration lists.
  • John C. Bollinger, deputy executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America, told the committee that whatever election reform succeeds in Congress, it must include provisions to ensure equal polling place access for people with disabilities.

"Barriers continue to prevent qualified people with disabilities from voting," Bollinger said. "All too often, people with disabilities are told that they should vote by absentee ballot or at the curb. Absentee ballots are not an adequate substitute for actually going to the polls, particularly when the voter is in the jurisdiction on Election Day."