Leading State Officials Urge Reforms to Voting System

Contact: Janet Lane, 202.552.2037


Washington, DC - 12/10/2008 - Leading state election officials, policymakers and experts meeting here this week called on state and federal governments to improve voter registration, expand early voting and better serve military and overseas voters. Their recommendations came at a major national conference, “Voting in America,” sponsored by the Pew Center on the States’ Make Voting Work initiative, in partnership with the JEHT Foundation.

Held at the Newseum, the conference, which concludes today, highlighted the growing momentum by state and local officials to:

- Improve voter registration procedures. Participants agreed on the need for changes in the current system and discussed reforms such as automatic voter registration, integrating state registration systems, and making registration more convenient.

“We need a new approach to voter registration that matches the reality of voters’ lives in the 21st Century,” said Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. “Instead of relying on the piecemeal system we have today, government has an opportunity to innovate and act affirmatively to ensure voter rolls are integrated and accurate.”

- Provide more opportunities for voting prior to Election Day. Participants agreed that states and localities should expand opportunities for early voting and improve absentee voting or other alternative voting systems. In Florida, for example, voters had 15 days prior to Election Day to cast their votes.

“In Florida we operated from the assumption that the whole idea of having to vote within one 12-hour-period on one particular day is antiquated,” said Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning. “Now we need to take the next step and work with the legislature to create more flexibility in the selection of sites, and in the hours available for election supervisors during early voting.”

- Improve the voting system for military and overseas voters. Participants discussed the difficulty of registering military and overseas voters, and the complications of ensuring ballots are sent and returned so that they can be counted. There was a consensus that the system for military and overseas voters is broken and that long-term and sustained improvements are needed.

“Our history of trying to fix military and overseas voting is one of the classic examples of band-aid upon band-aid upon band-aid,” said Oregon State Election Director John Lindback. “We need to change the system so these voters have a fighting chance of getting their ballots back on time.”

Representatives from both the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns agreed on the need to improve elections. Robert F. Bauer, who served as general counsel to the Obama campaign, recommended steps to measure the success of the election system by ranking the performance of states and localities and encouraging competition as a means for improvement. Bauer cited a forthcoming book, The Democracy Index; Why Our Election System is Failing, and How to Fix It (Heather K. Gerken; Princeton University Press) as a primer on how to improve the election process. Building on a model supported by PCS and the Pew Government Performance Project, the book highlights measures for ranking the performance of election systems with hard data and verified outcomes. Attendees also cited practices called for in Being Online, Data for Democracy, a Pew report issued through the Make Voting Work project that compares state performance.

Trevor Potter, who was counsel to the McCain campaign, spoke to the importance of reforming the system of voter registration. “It is clear that the current system of voter registration which relies on actions of individuals and private groups to put names on the registration rolls is flawed” said Mr. Potter. “Why isn’t it a fundamental obligation of government to ensure comprehensive and accurate voter registration? Why don’t we publish the voter registration rolls in advance of the election as many countries do so that voters can ensure the accuracy and integrity of the list?”

Make Voting Work, a project of the Pew Center on the States, seeks to foster an election system that achieves the highest standards of accuracy, accessibility, efficiency and security.  The initiative examines the most pressing election problems, and undertakes and evaluates pilot projects and experiments designed to address them. This research will inform our efforts to identify effective solutions through changes in policies, practices and technology.  Further information is available at pewcenteronthestates.org

The JEHT Foundation was established in April 2000. Its name stands for the core values that underlie the Foundation's mission: Justice, Equality, Human dignity and Tolerance. The Foundation focuses on criminal and juvenile justice, international justice, and fair and participatory elections. Working directly with states, in some cases in-depth, is a key part of the Foundation strategy to implement practical change related to its mission.

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