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New Study: Pace of Reform Fairly Encouraging

Two years after a prominent national commission issued 87 recommendations for improving the nation’s electoral system, the pace of reform has been largely encouraging, according to a new report.

A study issued earlier this month by American University’s Center for Democracy and Election Management found at least some level of progress when it comes to the communication of voter registration information, the use of reliable voting machines, the ability of elections officials to audit results and the ease with which people serving in the military or living overseas can vote, among other improvements.

Still, in many cases where progress has been identified, it merely means there has been extensive dialogue, not necessarily that policymakers have made sufficient changes.

And in some instances, the study’s authors found there has been “no identifiable progress.” These areas are: informing voters of their right to use provisional ballots, improving access for voters with disabilities, creating a more complete post-election timeline that would include procedures and deadlines for disputed elections, reforming the front-end loaded presidential primary schedule, studying the cost of elections and getting media organizations to voluntarily refrain from projecting presidential results on Election Day.

“I think there are very few areas where things are where we as citizens would want them to be,” said Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), a leading Congressional proponent of election reform measures.

The American University study was designed to be a progress report on the Commission on Federal Election Reform, also known as the Carter-Baker Commission, which was convened in early 2005 following the Florida balloting fiasco.

Since the bipartisan commission, which was chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker, released its findings in September 2005, there has been at least some progress on 80 percent of its recommendations, according to the AU report.

“This was really the first comprehensive and systematic effort on our part to analyze how much progress has been made since the commission report was first released,” said Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management and the executive director of the Carter-Baker Commission. “I think what frankly had surprised us as we stepped back from all of our work is there had actually been substantial progress across the board.”

While there have been some federal reforms in the past years, individual states have outpaced Congress in certain instances. For example, the number of states requiring manual audits of voter-verified records increased by five from 2005 to 2007 — but Congress has yet to pass a bill requiring a paper trail for elections.

Even so, there is broad bipartisan support for H.R. 811, Holt’s bill that would require a paper trail and audits for elections.

Holt said the support for his bill, which would bring “reliability and accessibility” to elections, is indicative of progress at the federal level since Carter-Baker.

But there needs to be another election before enough data can be collected to measure the full extent of progress, according to Pastor.

Another thing that remains unclear, the experts said, is how much of what has happened with elections law in the past two years has stemmed directly from the commission’s suggestions.

Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who has sponsored several bills aimed at improving access to absentee ballots, said many of her colleagues may not even know much about the commission and may suggest reforms simply because they are good ideas.

“I suspect that a lot of Members are not particularly aware of Carter-Baker but they are aware of good policies that would provide the kind of confidence that I think people need,” in their election system, she said.

Pastor said that the commission has had some degree of influence, but he noted that Members are driven by “complicated motives” when weighing legislation.

“How much [the] Carter-Baker report is influential in that, I really have no idea,” he said.

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