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Billion-Dollar Question: How Much Does a Fair Election Cost?

Most of the stories about the California recall election noted after the fact that California had dodged a bullet: The dire predictions about election process failure did not come to pass. As John McLaughlin would say, “WRONG!” [IMGCAP(1)]

California had a slew of problems, from changed and reduced polling places to punch-card machine errors and mistakes identifying registered voters — all the kinds of things that took place in Florida in 2000. To pick the biggest problem, the Los Angeles Times noted 10 days after the election that 8.7 million Californians cast ballots — but only 8.3 million had their votes recorded. The disenfranchised 400,000 were disproportionately located in the counties that used Florida-type punch cards.

In other stories from around the state, voters noted long lines and lengthy delays, poll workers who were themselves confused about the ballots and the processes, confusion about provisional ballots and a shortage of ballot boxes. And, of course, it took weeks after the election to count the massive number of absentee ballots.

So why were the stories wrong and why did the controversy disappear? For one obvious reason: The election wasn’t close enough for the problems to make the difference. And that, of course, underscores the deep, dark, dirty secret of elections in America. Many, many states and localities, and many, many elections over the years have been like Florida. The Washington Post letters column last week had a series of horror stories from voters in Virginia and Maryland from Nov. 4, including tales of no privacy, questionable touch-screen machines, long lines due to confusion over the new machines and incompetent election officials at the polls.

Many, many voters have been effectively disenfranchised by bad equipment, too few polling places, too few machines, too few poll workers and wildly inept ones among those who are there. Many others have been victims of inaccurate voter list purges by state and local election officials, by faulty registration lists and the inability to cast a provisional ballot protectively. It took an election as close and as meaningful as the presidential contest in Florida to lift the rock and show the underside of the election process.

While it took two full years, Congress did step up to the plate after Florida and enacted the Help America Vote Act, a solid piece of legislation that developed up-to-date national standards for elections and authorized nearly $4 billion to allow states to modernize their equipment and streamline their processes. That would be enough money to improve the system vastly, providing new, improved machines and better computerized and linked voter registration systems while allowing states and localities to have enough fully equipped polling places and to hire and train enough poll workers. The number, location and condition of the polling places is a critical piece of this; new research shows dramatically better turnout among voters who can cast their ballots within a walk of their homes. For working people, the need to drive to a polling place, or the cost of waiting in line early in the morning or at the end of the day, can make voting too difficult. Convenience matters.

One year after the enactment of HAVA, the system remains largely unreformed. The law required creation of an Election Assistance Commission to give states guidance, and most of the money cannot be allocated until the commission is in place (so far, the states have received $650 million). The four commissioners have only just been nominated, and there is no good reason for the year’s delay. As soon as they are confirmed, an additional $833 million that was appropriated last year can be sent out to the states.

That is a nice chunk of money but still leaves us way short of what is needed to make the election process fair and workable. Presidential and Congressional primaries are just around the corner; the general elections are less than a year away. Changes in procedures and equipment take a lot of time, as does training people to use the equipment and designing ballots for it. Only $500 million was included in the fiscal 2004 appropriations. That includes no money for the new election commission to operate. A couple of weeks ago, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined together to add a billion more to the Transportation/Treasury appropriations bill for election reform, which would take us up to the authorization for the 2003-04 cycle. Reps. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), their reformist counterparts on the House side, have called for upping that funding to $1.86 billion, to take it to 2005.

Most states and local governments are in fiscal meltdown and are disinclined, to say the least, to put much of their own money into their elections. As a consequence, many states, such as Missouri and Illinois, are postponing statewide election reforms until 2006. This includes postponing replacement of their punch-card systems and postponement of statewide voter registration databases. The requirement for robust provisional balloting procedures — a key to making sure that legitimate, registered voters are not erroneously deprived of their franchise — may be held in abeyance also.

There is nothing more significant to the health and fabric of a democracy than the people’s vote. We do not coerce Americans to go to the polls, and our turnout is among the lowest in the West. But when people care enough to turn out, the system has a fundamental responsibility to remove any unreasonable obstacles to their voting and to make their votes count. We as a society are falling way short of that responsibility. The failure, as Florida demonstrated, can be debilitating — alienating large numbers of citizens and casting doubt on the legitimacy of election results.

President Bush’s recent speech calling for democracy and freedom throughout the world (including, of course, Iraq) should serve as a clarion call to lawmakers and the president’s own White House and Office of Management and Budget as we move toward crunch time on appropriations bills. In the context of a more than $2.3 trillion budget, a billion or two seems trivial, but in a budget struggling over tax cuts, soaring entitlements, homeland security needs, $87 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan, and more, the temptation to use that billion for other things will be great.

The history of election administration is that it always takes a back seat to things such as education, highways and garbage pickup; its constituency is not real wide. That is why it is so encouraging to see four disparate but influential legislators such as Dodd, McConnell, Ney and Hoyer step up to the plate. Now they need four more — Frist, Daschle, Hastert and Pelosi — to join them.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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