Stateline Story

Election Reform Reports Reveal States Best, Worst

  • August 29, 2001
  • By Daniel Seligson

Two new reports alternately praise and chastise states for their election practices while offering vastly different proposals for how to best reform voting practices in this country.

The first, a report entitled "Voting in America," by the National Conference of State Legislature's Election Reform Task Force, outlines best voting practices in states, including clear and coherent recount standards and registration practices as well as voter education and machines.

Released at the NCSL's annual conference in San Antonio on August 14, the report calls on Congress to leave the fundamental administration of elections in the hands of states. It also calls for statewide voter registration databases, uniform procedures for recounts, no-excuse absentee voting and uniform standard for machine accuracy, ballot designs and counting.

The 31-member task force notes that more than 1,700 election reform bills were introduced in the states and 241 were signed into law.

Alfred Speer, a task force member who also serves as chief clerk of the Louisiana House, said states "have done a fairly good job of correcting mistakes and trying to make things better."

State lawmakers, however, have denounced federal mandates that they say would lead to dysfunctional "one-size-fits-all approach" elections.

A second report by Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee says election dysfunction demands a national response and highlights the need for federal mandates on voting.

The report claims 38 states have recount standards and procedures that "would likely fail constitutional scrutiny under Bush V. Gore."

The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is sponsoring legislation in the House that would establish federal mandates for voting machines and provide five years of funding to states for equipment purchases. An identical bill passed the Senate in late July, but without any Republican support.

The report decries a "national epidemic of disappearing votes" and urges Congress to act swiftly to enact standards. Conyers, along with Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., in the Senate, are Capitol Hill's strongest proponents of a federal election system they say would ensure civil rights.

"The states are simply not acting quickly enough to repair our election systems prior to the 2002 and 2004 elections," it states. "If voting rights were left to the option of the states over the past four decades, as some would suggest we approach voting reform today, there can be little doubt that millions of Americans would still be subjected to poll taxes and literacy tests."

In other election reform news:

  • Florida's much-celebrated election overhaul has lost some of its luster in the last month with a lawsuit and a growing feud between state and local election officials over voting machine overhauls. The Florida Equal Voting Rights Project sued the state on Aug. 14 charging the new law which requires the posting of signs telling voters to "study and know the candidates and issues" will discriminate against minorities and discourage voting. The St. Petersburg Times reported that while the state has dismissed the suit as "ridiculous," the group says the new election bill violates portions of federal law that ensure citizens who cannot read or write can vote. The U.S. Justice Department announced it would review the policy and other portions of state's election reform bill over the next two months. The Tallahassee Democrat reported county clerks and Florida's Election Division disagree on which side should do the legwork to create a statewide voter registration database. State officials want to run the project in-house, the paper reported, but the Florida Association of Court Clerks contends its members have more experience implementing similar systems.
  • Tennessee will have new standards for evaluating votes in recounts. A bill not signed by Gov. Don Sundquist became law on Tuesday (8/21). The new law stipulates punch cards will be counted if at least two corners of the chad are detached, light is visible through the hole in the chad or an indentation in the chad clearly indicates a voter's intent. The bill will also trigger an automatic recount if an election ends in a tie vote.
  • A legislative panel in New Hampshire will study voting fraud next month, evaluating how individuals or groups can cheat in elections. According to the Manchester Union Leader , the group will look into double voting, particularly by college students who might seek to alter policy in the Granite State while still voting in their home state.