Carter-Ford Election Report Falls Short

WASHINGTON -- Progressive election reformers have given cautious approval to a recent report about improving federal elections. Many critics, however, point to several obstacles that remain in the way of free and fair elections throughout the United States.

The report, issued by the National Commission on Federal Election Reform (a group headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford), was presented to President Bush in late July. Among its recommendations are increases in equipment standards; more federal funds for administrating elections; the creation of an agency to oversee "federal responsibilities" for nationwide elections; and the suggestions that media outlets should refrain from reporting election results while polls remain open in other states.

Notably, the commission also advised that convicted felons should have their right to vote restored, a pivotal element in the Florida recount controversy. Thomas Johnson, a former felon who now runs a rehabilitation center for released criminals, called the recommendations "a step forward."

"Like over 500,000 others in Florida -- and an estimated 4 million nationally, largely black men -- I've been disenfranchised," said Johnson, now the director of House of Hope, a center that helps former criminals re-acclimate into society. "I'm a man who committed a crime, I went to prison for it. I've paid my debt to society. Now, I'm helping guide other men's lives towards adhering to the law of the land, to have them be decent men, husbands and prominent citizens in the community. I'm supported by politically-minded people for the work that I do, yet the political system in Florida says I cannot vote."

Gwen Patton, a longtime voting rights activist, says that the denial of the vote to former felons amounts to "self-incrimination of a justice system that has failed to rehabilitate such people," and suggests that denying voting rights is contributing to "the shrinking of the electorate."

Patton also condemned the role of the Electoral College in federal elections, calling it a "mockery of what we call a democracy." Critics have blasted the system, whereby each state has a certain number of electors who cast their votes in a bloc according to the popular vote within the state. The procedure allows for a situation like the presidential election of last fall, in which a candidate won the national vote without receiving a popular plurality.

Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org) proposes several solutions that the federal commission report avoids. Instant runoff voting, a system in which voters select their first, second and third choices among candidates on a ballot, will "open our politics to more voices," Richie said. The method, already used in various localities in California, Oregon and Texas, allows voters to cast ballots for their favorite candidate without the fear of helping elect their least favorite. Proponents of instant runoff voting assert that the system promotes issue-based campaigns, increases voter turnout and supplies the winning candidate with a clearer mandate to govern than in traditional plurality elections.

Other analysts addressed the commission's moves to increase voter turnout. Patton agrees with the commission that Election Day should be made a national holiday, calling for a "civic day" of citizen responsibility. Miles Rapoport, president of Demos, a public policy and advocacy organization, suggested that a federal election agency establish voter registration on Election Day, which he believes "could increase turnout by 10 percent and resolve many problems voters face at the polls."

John Bonifaz, executive director of the National Voting Rights Institute, maintained that the major problem ailing American elections is the "dominance of big money." The changes suggested by the federal commission are a good start, Bonifaz stated, "but we need to eliminate the money barrier. If the only people who can run are the wealthy and the well-connected, then we have not addressed that core problem."

Evan Woodward is a writer with IPA Media, a project of the Institute for Public Accuracy (www.accuracy.org).

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