We Urgently Need to Fix Our Voting System

You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.

Saturday, January 13, 2007
As the 110th Congress convened January 4, its members had only to look around them to be reminded of an issue they should be addressing this session. Indeed, they could look the reminder right in the face. 

His name is Vern Buchanan, and he was sworn in as the duly elected representative of Florida's 13th District. He won his seat by 369 votes, but his opponent has called into question why some 18,000 people in the district who voted for other races on the ballot seem not to have cast votes in the House contest. 

It will be up to the courts to decide on the opponent's charge that she was the victim of a voting-machine malfunction. But the questions that have arisen over whether the computerized voting machines in Sarasota County operated properly — or whether, as some suggest, a poorly designed ballot page caused some 18,000 voters to skip choosing a congressional candidate — are yet another reminder of a serious problem that our representative government faces and that Congress needs to address: Our voting system is fragile and desperately in need of shoring up. 

Ever since the 2000 presidential election recount in Florida, Americans have been aware that the systems by which we record, tally, and verify votes don't always work. Why does this matter? I'll let the 2005 report by the national Commission on Federal Election Reform, on which I served, give the answer. "The vigor of American democracy rests on the vote of each citizen," the panel wrote. "Only when citizens can freely and privately exercise their right to vote and have their vote recorded correctly can they hold their leaders accountable. Democracy is endangered when people believe that their votes do not matter or are not counted correctly." 

In other words, what might seem an obscure and technical subject — the accuracy and verifiability of our voting process — is in fact part of the bedrock of American democracy. 

While we do not face a crisis in our voting system, the problems do need to be addressed. It puzzles me that there seems no particular sense of urgency, either among the public or in Congress, about making sure we fix things right now. If elections are defective, our entire system is at risk. 

Admittedly, fixing the system won't be easy or inexpensive. For one thing, it involves questions about how far the federal government should reach into a matter that has largely been left to states, counties and local governments to resolve. Some states and smaller jurisdictions do a fine job of conducting elections; others, however, try to do it on the cheap, with machinery and processes inadequate to the task. 

So let's ask ourselves: Is it too much to expect that every American voter, regardless of where he or she lives, can go to the polls on Election Day confident that there won't be long delays and that his or her vote will actually be registered as cast? 

The federal government took a step in the right direction with the Help America Vote Act of 2001, known as HAVA, which for the first time set national requirements for state and local elections, in exchange for funds to improve the administration of elections. Now it's time for Congress and the states to focus on what additional steps are needed. 

To begin, it will take a lot of money to be sure that every precinct in the country is equipped adequately. A lot of jurisdictions have adopted computerized voting screens, but without going to the added expense of making sure they include a voter-verifiable paper trail; as the election reform commission suggested, Congress should require such an audit trail and, if need be, help fund it. 

As the 2005 report noted, "The purpose of voting technology is to record and tally all votes accurately and to provide sufficient evidence to assure all participants — especially the losing candidates and their supporters — that the election result accurately reflects the will of the voters." 

Several other steps might also be needed to ensure that Americans have confidence in the system. Voter registration systems need to be strengthened, voters accurately identified, voting made more convenient, votes counted accurately, and the administration of elections improved. 

Why my sense of urgency about all this? Because we have less than two years until the next presidential election and a set of House and Senate elections that might affect the majority in both chambers. As the election reform commission noted, "Election reform is best accomplished when it is undertaken before the passions of a specific election cycle begin." The time to fix things is now, not after the next instance in which voting snafus cause some number of Americans to wonder whether they really live in a democracy. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)