Ensuring a Fair Presidential Election

Many pundits and activists have finally figured out what political insiders always knew: our presidential election is not a national election at all. The battle for chief executive will be fought in 15 battleground states, none either solidly Republican red or Democratic blue, each fought as individual contests that will be too close to call. This political geography presents important lessons for partisans and reformers alike.

In a likely replay of the 2000 election, the battleground states are Florida (of course), Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Some add Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada, making 18 states.

These states' concerns will drive much of the campaign debate. Those in the Midwest's rust belt have been hit hard by job losses, particularly in well-paying manufacturing jobs, making states like Ohio competitive. More Latino voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada create dilemmas for Republicans on issues like immigration. With the prominence of Florida and its senior citizens, we'll hear a lot about Medicare and Social Security. And don't expect John Kerry to highlight gun control or other pet liberal issues when the almighty swing voters in battleground states mostly oppose them.

Key issues of concern to those in other states -- even large states like Texas, New York, Illinois and California -- will get short shrift because they are not in play. Just as in our largely non-competitive congressional races, most Americans effectively will be on the political sidelines.

But that doesn't mean those voters can't be involved in certain ways. They can make sure friends and relatives in the battleground states are registered to vote. They can hold house parties to raise campaign cash for the close states. Some might even be able to travel to a nearby battleground state and volunteer.

Most immediately, voters everywhere can highlight the need for fair elections. With the two sides so close, we could be looking at another "Florida" happening in any number of battleground states, perhaps in several of them. The political geography of battleground states allows the presidential candidates to target not only their resources and campaigning -- but also their attempts to steal the election. Changing the results in one battleground state, particularly a large state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, will make a difference in the outcome.

So advocates of fair elections similarly must target our efforts to lessen the chance of another Florida happening. That means working in the 15 battleground states with civic groups like People for the American Way, the League of Women Voters and Advancement Project to:

  • Establish high-profile 1-800 numbers where voters can report incidents of fraud or disenfranchisement, with "hot spot" legal teams ready to be dispatched to problem areas.

  • Ensure voter registration lists are handled fairly, unlike in Florida where tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters were mistakenly tagged as ex-felons and removed.

  • Educate voters and pollworkers that voters now have a federal right to cast a "provisional ballot" if they barred from voting because aren't on the voter list in their precinct. Election officials must research each provisional ballot and either validate or deny it before certifying any winners. This new right won't be much use if barred voters don't know to ask for a provisional ballot, or precinct poll workers aren't trained to handle them.

  • Demand greater public scrutiny of both old and new voting equipment, ensuring that antiquated punchcards and more modern optical scan machines and "touchscreens" count voters' ballots as intended.

  • Protect the rights of overseas voters, both civilians and those in the military, by sending them ballots in a timely manner.

It would be wise to take precautions immediately. We have to be especially aware that there are built-in conflicts of interest where the official in charge of elections has a big stake in the outcome, such has happened in 2000, when Katherine Harris acted as both Florida's Secretary of State in charge of elections and as chairwoman of George Bush's campaign in Florida.

Many Ohio counties use Diebold's computerized touchscreens to count their ballots. Fair elections advocates should demand greater scrutiny of that equipment, including examination of the software code and witnessing the "logic and accuracy" tests that are performed before and after Ohio's election to certify the reliability of the equipment.

Longer term, we need to challenge how the Electoral College marginalizes most voters because they live in noncompetitive states. We should push states to require majority winners through instant runoff voting, and debate ideas like an Election Day holiday and universal voter registration.

But this year it all comes down to the battleground states. The Florida debacle pretty much revealed the template for the types of goofs, manipulations and fraud that must be avoided in 2004. We must organize in the 15 battleground states to ensure that this time, all votes are counted and all votes count.

Steven Hill is senior analyst for the Center for Voting and Democracy and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. Rob Richie is the Center's executive director.

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