Stateline Story

Election Reform Burden Shifts To States

The casting of ballots on Election Day has largely been a local affair local poll workers, local standards and local counting of votes in the roughly 6,800 voting jurisdictions across the United States.

But under election reform legislation recently passed by Congress and currently sitting on President Bush's desk, the responsibility for administering elections will shift to a large extent to state governments.

"When it comes to implementation of election reform, it seems that state governments will be the ones required to take the lead," said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan website providing news and analysis on election reform.

Chapin's statement came at a press conference Tuesday announcing the release of a new electionline.org report, Election Reform Since November 2001: What's Changed, What Hasn't, and Why.

The organization's 50-state survey found that many states made improvements in 2002, including the purchase and implementation of new voting machines.

But former Attorney General Janet Reno cautioned at the press conference that new machines are not a silver bullet for solving election problems.

"It's imperative that we master the machines and not let them master us," she said. "There's a real lack of cyber-expertise in the nation, and we're seeing that on Election Day. Good hands-on training is essential."

Reno lost Florida's Democratic primary for governor Sept. 10 amid serious voting-machine problems. She fears those problems may arise elsewhere.

Perhaps the biggest change of the past year is the recently passed federal legislation, which marks the federal government's first major foray into election administration, with significant consequences for many states, according to the report.

Under the legislation, states must provide "provisional ballots" to voters whose names do not appear on registration lists by the presidential election of 2004. Those ballots would be counted if the voter's registration could later be verified.

By the 2006 election, each state must have a statewide voter registration list linked to its driver's license agency, a step that will help states keep track of living voters and remove from the rolls the names of those now dead.

In addition, the legislation mandates improved access to the polls for voters with disabilities and voters with limited English proficiency.

To cover some of the cost of the reforms, the legislation includes an authorization for the federal government to provide states with almost $4 billion, but additional congressional action will be needed before the funds are actually appropriated to the states.

"The infusion of federal funds and the arrival of federal requirements will likely set off another burst of reform activity in the states, who themselves posted a mixed record of reform in 2002," said Chapin.

According to the report, the states' "mixed record" during 2002 includes: thirteen states that enacted no reforms at all (some because their legislature didn't meet); eight states that approved statewide voter registration databases; and four states who approved some forms of voter identification requirements.

"This mixed record on election reform means that some states will have more to do than others as the work of implementation [of the federal legislation] begins," said Chapin. "States that began the process in 2002 will be ahead of the reform curve. While others will have to scramble to catch up."