Commentary: Heavy Mistrust of Elections' Honesty -- But Where's the Groundswell for Reform?

Partisanly chosen state election officials, reports Stateline.org, have become "a new flashpoint for bitter partisan struggling over how balloting is run."

It's as if the rancor engendered by the razor-thin 2000 presidential vote in Florida , when Republican Secretary of State (and Bush campaign cochair) Katherine Harris was accused of raw partisan decisions, has never abated. Indeed, it seems to have spawned a new era of deep distrust in American politics.

Polls show Americans' confidence in the integrity of elections, overseen in 36 states by secretaries of state, has plummeted from pre-2000 levels. In 1996, there were just 108 cases of challenged elections around the U.S. ; by 2004, the number had tripled, to 361, according to a survey by election expert Richard Hasen of the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles .

The Florida 2000 debacle and the "Bush v. Gore" court case decided by a partisanly divided U.S. Supreme Court have unleashed a wave of court suits in close elections — "election law as political strategy," Hasen suggests.

Adding to the perils: more than 80 percent of voters will be using electronic voting machines, a third of precincts for the first time, this autumn. The replacement of outdated voting machines with computer-based equipment, pushed along by federal assistance under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, is good news. But suspicions of manipulation run high and there's been little time for careful ironing out of computer bugs. In Maryland 's September primary, technological glitches played a role in long lines and delayed vote counts.

So extreme are the levels of distrust and suspicions of outright vote tampering that some observers are suggesting delays and court actions might cause a serious backup in deciding what party will control Congress after next month's elections.

And already, secretaries of state from Arkansas to California , Connecticut to Georgia , have come under fire on suspicions ranging from discriminatory purging of voter rolls to using federal money from the 2002 "Help America Vote Act" for partisan political purposes.

Twenty secretaries of state are running for office this year, even while serving as their state's chief election officer. Ohio's Republican Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell generated so much suspicion over his office's handling of the 2004 presidential election count that he's felt obliged, while running for governor this year, to hand some of his election duties off to an aide. But Democrat Chet Culver of Iowa has kept his secretary of state duties even while running for governor.

The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, endorses a proposal to remove election responsibilities from partisanly elected secretaries of state. The logical substitute would be a chief elections officer and board appointed by each governor, the officials' high professional standing and impartiality assured by requiring a supermajority (perhaps 75 percent) vote of confirmation by legislatures.

Vast majorities of us would likely approve: polling shows less than 1 percent support the current system of elections governed by a single partisan elected official.

Combine that with the idea of a federal elections commission empowered to create minimum standards states must follow to assure honest elections, and there's a bright opening to develop a professionalized cadre of national and state election officials able to start restoring Americans' confidence in their election processes.

But political bodies rarely welcome their own demise. The nation's secretaries of state made that clear again last year when their national association recommended killing off the federal government's advisory Election Assistance Commission created under the Help America Vote Act.

Nor are we hearing any groundswell of support for the entirely logical idea of universal voter registration in the U.S. Presently we have what Hasen calls the "hyper-federalization" of American election administration — 50 states and tens of thousands of little units setting dates, hours, times, conditions for voter registration, purging or not purging voter lists their own way.

Instead, the federal government — possibly the Census Bureau — could work with states to create a national registry of all American citizens. All would be entitled to vote, but with a fingerprint check each election day to prevent double voting or other fraud. Democrats' desire to get as many people voting as possible, Hasen believes, would jibe with Republicans' determination to prevent fraudulent ballots — thus a breakthrough opportunity for reform.

Yet one sighs and wonders — will real election reform get caught in the political underbrush, and like our long-overdue elimination of the electoral college presidential vote system, remain unsolved because of inertia on the one hand, obfuscation tactics of special interests on the other?

Let's hope not. As this autumn's elections are likely to illustrate yet again, the moment for radical change to reduce today's level of virulent mistrust can't come too soon.