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Follow Nelson’s Lead on Reforming Elections System

Wednesday, April 16th, 2008

Norman J. Ornstein
Why Tuesday? Board Member Norman J. Ornstein

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is one of the good guys in Congress — smart, thoughtful, decent and hardworking. Now, fortunately, he is turning his attention and considerable energies to election reform, a broadly defined issue.

It is fortunate for two reasons: First, there are big issues out there and enough people distrustful of the electoral process or cynical about it to create a real crisis of governance the next time we have a very close election. Second, precious few lawmakers have decided to devote their time and attention to this topic.

Despite the emotions raised by problems with voting, this is not a slam-dunk winner of an issue politically. And those lawmakers who were instrumental in passing the Help America Vote Act in 2002 have either lost interest in the issue, are exhausted from it or believe we should wait awhile before acting again.

They are wrong. We do need to be careful about rushing to major reform without considering the costs and consequences; we are paying now for the rush to employ touch-screen devices known as DREs, or direct-recording electronic machines. And every major reform has to be absorbed by hapless election administrators who have neither the resources nor the trained personnel to make big changes on a frequent basis.


But we have enough serious problems in the system that we cannot be complacent, inattentive or inertia-bound. In 2008, with perhaps the most consequential national election in our lifetimes, with turnout rates already soaring in primaries, and with a real possibility that the presidential election could be very close yet again, the country can ill-afford a meltdown.

Look at the problems we have seen already in this primary season: faulty registration information, misguided poll workers and an inadequate number of printed ballots. If any of those occur again, or if additional huge numbers end up waiting for hours because of too few voting machines or poll workers, or if there are real doubts about the efficacy and faithfulness of counts coming from suspect machines, dubious ballot designs or partisan election counters, we will have an angry and — dare I say it — bitter group of voters believing either that they have been unfairly disenfranchised or had the election stolen from their favored candidate.

It should be no surprise that Nelson is interested in this issue. He is after all from Florida and has been seared by the experiences of a state that has become a poster child for all that is wrong with our elections. As the late, great NBC analyst Roseanne Roseannadanna used to say, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something.” In Florida, it was the disaster of 2000 followed by the disaster of Florida- Michigan delegate selection politics in 2008.

Nelson is soon to introduce a sweeping plan to deal with a number of election-related issues, some more relevant than others. He wants to abolish the Electoral College; blow up the current presidential nominating process and replace it with a series of rotating regional primaries; and enact a series of changes to clean up the voting process and make voting easier.

On the nuts and bolts of election reform, Nelson’s heart is in the right place, and many of his suggestions are excellent. I am enthusiastic about ways to clean up and coordinate registration lists to establish uniform criteria, and finding ways to facilitate registration among young voters especially. I also think that expanding early voting, as Florida has done, is a good idea so long as it is voting at established polling places and confined to a limited time.

I am not enthusiastic about his suggestion that we sharply expand voting by mail and create a nationwide requirement for absentee voting on demand. The real issues of voter fraud are in voting by mail, not at the polls, and voting by mail also eliminates the zone of privacy that exists in a voting booth and erases any of the sense of civic duty that comes with joining one’s fellow citizens at the polls.

But the fact is that voting at the polls has become a distinctly difficult and unpleasant experience for way too many voters. We need to find ways to make the experience something positive. Here, Congress and the states need to consider many other approaches to accomplish that goal. A key is to provide more money to hire and train poll workers, and to expand the universe to include students and other young people who can easily absorb the training to operate the voting machines, check the registration lists and know the rules in each jurisdiction.

Another is to change Election Day, an issue the new organization Why Tuesday? has focused on this year. (Check out its Web site, with great videos of major political figures from all sides trying to answer the question of why we vote on Tuesday.) I favor weekend voting, either a 24-hour period beginning noon Saturday, or long hours on both days to avoid Sabbath problems and give many opportunities to workers who otherwise can only go during peak voting hours.

We should couple weekend voting with a sharp expansion of vote centers, consolidating many scattered precincts — each with inadequate facilities, parking, voting machines, technicians and poll workers — into bigger sites like Wal-Marts, supermarkets and stadiums, which can pool the poll workers, experts and machines. This process requires up-to-date registration lists to match each voter with the appropriate ballot, and will take time, money and effort, but Larimer County in Colorado has shown that it can work, sharply expanding turnout and voter satisfaction. Vote centers also resulted in an upgrade of poll worker quality and a reduction in average age.

I am hoping to try an experiment in this vein in the District of Columbia. I hope we can get wonderfully civic-minded team owners Abe Pollin and the Lerner family to open their facilities as vote centers, and get Mayor Adrian Fenty to mobilize to make the process work. Imagine if voters could go to Nationals Park, where players and other celebrities would gather, be encouraged to bring their kids to see them vote, and let the kids run the bases — while others could shoot baskets and meet Wizards while doing the same thing at the Verizon Center. I would bet turnout would shoot up, and kids would get socialized in the idea that voting is a positive thing and a civic duty.

If Nelson’s ideas are imperfect, at least he is eager to seize this issue and expand our debate. I hope others will join him. We are not going to find a magic fix for 2008, beyond prayer that the election will not be close. But the problems go way beyond any fix for this year anyhow.

Norman Ornstein is a member of the Board of Why Tuesday?, and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published today in Roll Call, to which Mr. Ornstein is a contributing writer.

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