Clean Election Process Would Be a Welcome Break From the Past

Posted December 17, 2007 at 6:02pm

Ben Ginsberg and I don’t agree on much of anything. For starters, he is a Republican legal expert on election laws and I am a Democratic activist for the vigorous protection and enforcement of voting rights and civil rights laws. But at a recent Pew/Electionline 2008 Journalists’ Forum, we found common ground by agreeing that voters should decide elections — not political parties. [IMGCAP(1)]

In just a few short weeks (or, in the case of Iowa, days), voters will head to their precincts to cast their ballot or to caucus in an effort to elect the next president of the United States. While many states have taken extraordinary steps since the previous election to reform their electoral processes, many eligible voters in our great democracy continue to be disenfranchised by unreliable and unsecured voting equipment, unequal access to the polls, poorly trained election workers, partisan manipulations by election officials, poor ballot designs, uncounted but valid provisional ballots, undue restrictions on voter registration, unjust purging of registration rolls, burdensome photo-identification laws, and other scurrilous tactics to discourage Americans from participating.

The failure to encourage and protect the sanctity of the vote undermines the public’s confidence in election results and threatens the very foundations of our democracy. Given the problems we have seen in Florida back in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, 2008 will be a major test on reform efforts to date. None of us should feel confident that the problems with which we have become familiar over the past several electoral cycles will not affect and infect this cycle. After all, we haven’t done what we need to do to professionalize election administration and prevent voter intimidation, deception and the manipulation of our election system for partisan advantage.

As recently as last month, we saw deception of student voters and discriminatory challenges in Georgia’s local elections. In Virginia, Hispanic citizens trying to cast their ballots were intimidated. Administrative failures that left thousands of voters across the country waiting in line for hours at polls have not been fixed.

Election officials need to adopt customer-service models. Americans are confident they can walk into any Starbucks and get a coffee customized by up to five personalized requests delivered to perfection within minutes, but they lack confidence that they can cast their votes free from impediment and have their ballots accurately counted. It is too easy to deceive and intimidate voters. In the 21st century we should not be going into an election season knowing that there will be cynical attempts to remove eligible voters from the process through poor matching protocols, deception and intimidation.

That reality forces all of us to engage in voter protection at each step of the voter- mobilization process. This means effective voter education and vigilance to ensure that registration efforts follow the increasingly complicated and restrictive rules on citizen-registration drives. We must help the committed men and women who are administering elections to ensure that they are doing their jobs in a way that prioritizes the rights of the voters they serve. Voter protection needs to be incorporated into every element of the voter-empowerment process, from registration to voter education to get-out-the-vote efforts to Election Day mobilization.

Ginsberg and I have agreed to keep talking and to find ways to work together. My first call is to ask Republicans and Democrats alike to work together to encourage every eligible citizen, regardless of partisan affiliation, to vote. Secondly, we must all agree that efforts to disenfranchise and intimidate voters from participating in the 2008 elections should be outlawed. Thirdly, we must call upon all of our operatives, Democratic and Republican alike, not to use any tactics that may suppress voter participation.

It’s time we end:

• voter caging and midnight robocalls with rude messages or misinformation;

• distributing dishonest fliers in predominantly minority precincts, as occurred in 2006 in Maryland;

• dispatching off-duty police officers to minority precincts to intimidate or deceive voters;

• election officials requesting voters first produce government-issued identification when the law does not require it; and

• disseminating fliers and other materials with threatening and often misleading information as to what will occur if certain people vote, such as the fliers distributed in my home state of Louisiana that erroneously said voters behind in either their child support or rent would be arrested at the polls if they showed up to vote.

We must take action to prevent last-minute precinct changes that often cause voters to cast provisional ballots, which may or may not be counted. We must establish procedures to ensure that ballots timely cast by eligible U.S. voters living abroad (including military personnel) will be counted. And we must enforce laws and procedures that allow college students greater access to the polls and prohibit election officials from engaging in partisan conduct during federal elections.

We can do this. We can have a clean, honest and transparent election. That would be a welcome change from the past.

Donna Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grass-roots political consulting firm.