Poorly engineered. Inefficient. Corrupt.
These are some of the words used to describe voting systems in the United States. The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, created in the wake of the contested presidential election results in Florida, met Tuesday at the Gerald R. Ford Library on North Campus to hear and later recommend proposals for repairing the allegedly broken system of elections. Ford and fellow former President Jimmy Carter are honorary co-chairmen of the commission. Although Carter was unable to attend, Ford presided over the meeting.
First to testify was U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who proclaimed, “election reform is alive and well in the 107th Congress.”
Hoyer, the ranking member on the Committee on House Adminstration, the panel that oversees election laws in the House of Representatives, went on to describe a bill he is crafting with committee chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio).
Hoyer advocated a plan of matching grants from the federal government to supplement those that states provide to improve their voting systems.
In a letter sent to the commission and read out loud during the hearing, Ney said punch-card voting systems need to be replaced.
“This will cost money and the federal government should help,” he said.
Hoyer said another proposal worth examining is having college and high school students work as poll workers during elections. When asked by commission member and former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (D-Minn.) whether he supported giving government federal, state, and local employees paid time-off to work as poll workers, Hoyer said he does.
One of the main points of debate was whether the federal government should establish a national standard, order states to set up a uniform standard within their jurisdictions or whether to set a recommendation of standards for states to follow.
Scott Thomas, a member of the Federal Election Commission and three-time chairman of the FEC, said he supported the idea that there has to be some national standard for voting systems.
“There are some underlying factors that the federal government has to identify some standards that have to appear across the board in every county in every state,” he said.
During the second panel, R. Doug Lewis, executive director of Texas-based The Election Center, warned that the government and public should not overreact to the contested presidential election in Florida.
Lewis said the Florida Legislature, in the process of purging convicted felons from the voting rolls, hastily purged many Florida voters who are not felons. This, he said, is an example of how overreaction can make a problem worse.
During Michigan Bureau of Elections Director Christopher Thomas” testimony, Thomas was asked how the state prevented non-citizens from voting. When registering to vote, he said, voters must swear an oath that they are citizens and can be prosecuted if they attempt to vote. To his knowledge, the state has not brought charges against anyone in recent years for swearing falsely to the oath.
Ford then asked, “You mean in the whole state of Michigan no one tried to vote who wasn”t an American citizen?”
“Does it happen? Yeah, I”m sure it does,” Thomas responded, adding that the incidence of this is minimal and there is no evidence that it has been happening.
During the third panel, Columbia University Journalism Prof. Joan Konner, who oversaw CNN”s examination of its election-night coverage, criticized the use of the various news networks” reliance on the Voter News Service.
VNS is a conglomeration of the major networks and takes exit polls to determine the outcome of elections soon after they are over. CNN”s actions during the night included initially calling the state of Florida for Al Gore, subsequently retracting the call, calling Florida for then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and finally retracting that call as well. Konner said the night”s problems were a result of VNS” near-monopoly on exit-polls combined with the networks competition in analyzing the data and wanting to be the first to call the election.
“There is no evidence that poll results in one state affect turnout in another state,” Konner also remarked. Some Republicans believe the networks” early call for Gore persuaded many in the GOP to lose hope and not show up to the polls in other states, several of which ended up very close.
The hearing, during which whispers and quiet banter were frequent, was brought to silence during the testimony of Jim Dickson, vice president of the National Organization on Disability. Dickson, who is blind and was led into the room with the assistance of his seeing-eye dog, testified to the difficulties many disabled people face when voting. Dickson led the successful drive to have the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. depict the former president in a wheelchair.
“One-fourth of polling places President Roosevelt could not enter,” Dickson said, noting many polling places are not handicapped-accessible.
A discussion of a telephone menu-like voting system for the blind ensued after Dickson noted blind people almost always need assistants to fill out their ballots.
“I am blind. I have never cast a secret ballot,” he said.
The meeting was the last public hearing of the commission.