A new report from electionline.org finds that in the five years since President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) into law, election administration in this country has undergone profound change but has not necessarily raised the confidence of the American public. Enacted in 2002 to address the problems revealed by the disputed 2000 presidential vote, HAVA is Congress' largest investment in election reform. The Act devoted $4 billion in federal funds to replace punch card voting machines, develop state voter registration databases and establish the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
“HAVA undoubtedly brought the change to American elections that many sought after the 2000 election.” said Doug Chapin, director of Pew's electionline.org. “But the public's lingering concerns over electronic voting, partisan disputes over voter ID and other issues continue to plague America's election system.”
Marking the legislation's fifth anniversary, electionline.org, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Center on the States, reviews the successes and limitations of HAVA to date. Key findings include:
- More than $3 billion in federal funds – the largest federal investment in election administration ever made – has been distributed to states. However, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the agency responsible for distributing funds and offering guidance, got a late start on its work and has recently come under fire for its handling of research into voter identification rules and voting system testing. States and localities are also still waiting for the last $800 million of federal funds promised by HAVA.
- Enforcement of HAVA mandates, including the creation of statewide voter registration databases, accessible voting machines in each polling place, provisional voting and identification requirements for some first-time voters, has resulted in litigation. The U.S. Department of Justice has sued four states for HAVA non-compliance with the Act's voting machine and database mandates – again with mixed success in forcing compliance.
- Efforts to pass more stringent voter identification rules in the states – perhaps the most contentious issue in election administration – were given a boost by HAVA's inclusion of a narrow ID requirement for some first-time voters as the result of a compromise between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Since HAVA's passage, a dozen states have enacted ID rules more stringent than the federal requirement, doubling the number of states where voters must show ID.
- Photo-only ID rules have been enacted in Georgia and Indiana in recent years, prompting a closely-watched legal challenge that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2008.
- Doubts over voting machines have grown since 2000. While a federal buyout consigned most punch-card and lever voting systems to the scrap heap, the touch-screen electronic voting machines intended to replace them have faced a steady barrage of criticism from computer scientists, voter integrity groups and other organizations. After the implementation of thousands of paperless electronic machines across the country, a movement is afoot to return to paper. Many counties in Florida will unplug touch-screen machines for good in 2007 and use paper-based optical-scan systems in 2008 – with jurisdictions elsewhere considering whether to follow suit.
- Of those states that have opted to keep electronic voting, many have added printers allowing for voter-verified paper audit trails.
HAVA has also prompted ingenuity, for example:
- Facing requirements for accessible voting systems, polling places and staffing shortages, one Colorado county election official came up with the idea of election day vote centers, whereby any voter in the jurisdiction could go to any polling location – whether or not as close by as a neighborhood precinct – to cast a ballot. The idea has spread throughout Colorado and is now being tested in other states as well.
- The vote-by-mail system, an alternative to the polling place embraced by Oregon, has become increasingly popular in other Western states and localities.
- Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina and Colorado have implemented—with varying degrees of success—electronic poll books, which allow instant on-site access at polling places to statewide registration systems and program voter-specific ballot information.
Early voting in person at centralized polling places has increased since HAVA's passage. In 2008, 35 states will allow all voters some option to cast ballots before Election Day. In fact, with the prevalence of early voting, voters in an estimated 12 states could cast ballots before voters in New Hampshire residents take part in the “first in the nation” primary in January.
“Five years after the enactment of the Help America Vote Act, we can say with certainty that HAVA had a profound impact on the American system of elections,” Chapin observed. “In 2008, we will find out if the system has been improved – or merely changed.”
electionline.org is a project of Pew's Center on the States. electionline.org is committed to the Center's mission to examine effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states by conducting highly credible research, bringing together diverse perspectives, analyzing states' experiences to determine what works and what doesn't, and collaborating with other funders and organizations to shine a spotlight on nonpartisan, pragmatic solutions.
The Pew Charitable Trusts applies the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Our Pew Center on the States identifies and advances effective policy approaches to critical issues facing states.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.