In her dual roles as Arkansas' top election official and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, Sharon Priest is an outspoken advocate of careful change in elections. Priest wants better cooperation between states and local jurisdictions in managing enormous voter registration files and coordinating poll worker recruitment and training. When it comes to Congress, however, Priest and many other secretaries want a helping hand without mandatory national standards or a federalized system of elections.
Despite the sharp criticism of many states' election procedures after last year's presidential contest, Priest sees the national spotlight on elections as an opportunity hold a national dialogue on voting a process that rarely raises eyebrows unless something goes wrong.
Stateline.org caught up with Priest in Austin, Texas, where she offered her views to the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, a foundation-funded group chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
Stateline.org: There are varying reports about election reform gaining and losing momentum. From the perspective of an election official, is this issue still alive and well and do you expect there to be federal action this year?
Priest: I think there still is a great deal of momentum. There are many many organizations that have task forces on elections that are really now just coming together. Our elections committee, for example, will be coming out with the specifics to go along with our general resolution in July in Little Rock. I think it's still alive, it just takes time to weed through everything and to gain consensus among groups.
Stateline.org: What about at the state level? There was an enormous outcry for action in January. More than 1,500 bills were introduced. But so far, only three states Maryland, Georgia and Florida adopted what could be characterized as sweeping reforms. Should we expect more states to take major action?
Priest: I think as legislative bodies meet Arkansas, for example. has met and we got some things done. I got mandatory poll worker training done. I got an election study commission passed. I got military and overseas ballots to be counted. So I'm pretty pleased with that. Are we through? No. Will we ever be through? No. Not even after the [Arkansas] election study commission meets and makes recommendations for the next session. And I think that's the case in many states. People are taking a more deliberate look and wanting to look at all the aspects of elections, the whole process, so that they can come up with something that's comprehensive and not just a scatter-brain approach.
Stateline.org: Congress seems to be narrowing a crowded field of election reform bills to a few legislative vehicles. Do you like what you have seen in the leading bills in the House and Senate?
Priest: I just reviewed Sen. Christopher] Dodd's bill this morning. There are some good things in there. I looked at the McConnell bill, none of them are all bad. I just don't think we need a [federal] commission. The National Association of Secretaries of State has a commission, the National Association of State Election Directors NASED has a commission. I think if they were to gather all of that information, they have got all of that research data that they need. If they're going to look at a commission, that commission needs to be a grant-granting group.
Stateline.org: Other than money, in the form of block grants, which is what your organization has called for, what else do state secretaries want from the federal government?
Priest: We just want flexibility, because some states already have uniform systems. Some states need more help in terms of poll worker training and voter education. Secretaries don't think the feds should just drop a zillion dollars in our lap and say, go forth and do good work.' They would not be fulfilling their fiduciary obligation to the people of the country if they did that. So there has to be some auditing procedures in place.
Stateline.org: Bush v. Gore aside. Florida debacle aside. Would there have been attention on this issue at all this year? Or is this something that has been building that secretaries of state, as top election officials, have been talking about for years?
Priest: We've been working on these issues for years. We can go back and show you resolutions that we've passed to try to get things done, but when you don't have the forum and the audience, it's hard to make it happen. But we have been working in our states. I can show you legislation that I had passed in this year, in 1999. And 1997 was a water-shed year for us.
Stateline.org: In a sense, was what happened in Florida a positive development?
Priest: Yes. I think in every cloud there's a silver lining and I think there's an opportunity now that the country is focused on elections and wants to see elections reformed. I think this is the opportunity to make it happen. I also truly believe that we pay a great price for democracy in our country now. This is not the time to look at how you save money in the election process. It is at the core of our democracy.