News & Politics

Beyond Voting Machines: HAVA and Real Election Reform

The Florida 2000 election proved to Americans of all political persuasions that our election laws are broken. Yet the debacle also created an opening for voting reform that we have not seen for decades.
Butterfly ballots. Hanging chads. Thousands of African Americans turned away from the polls. Hundreds of elderly Jews voting for Pat Buchanan.

The details of the Florida 2000 election debacle are seared into our collective memory, and rightly so. They proved to Americans of all political persuasions that our election laws are broken. In so doing, the debacle created an opening for voting reform that we have not seen for decades. Citizens of all stripes have started to question the sanctity of our election laws. Why do we vote the way we do? Should partisan operatives administer elections? Who should count our votes? And who should be allowed to vote in the first place?

This opening for reform is a chance to help more people vote, to bring more people into our democracy. Specifically, it is an opportunity to knock down some of the structural barriers that keep millions of Americans from voting. Many of our past barriers to voting -- like colonial laws that enfranchised only white, male landowners, or Jim Crow-era poll taxes and literacy tests -- have been culled out as un-American and abolished. But numerous barriers still exist today. The 2000 election has given us the chance to attack them with renewed vigor.

Progressives need to seize this moment, for reasons both moral and practical. Morally, the progressive ideals of equality and justice can never be attained if vulnerable segments of the population -- young people, low income communities, people of color -- continue to be pushed out of the political process. Practically, those marginalized communities are more likely to vote against the candidates of America's conservative minority. That means more victories for progressive causes.

The Help America Vote Act

In the wake of the 2000 election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) last October. HAVA mandates that all 50 states upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including their voting machines, registration processes and poll worker training. The specifics of implementation have been left up to each state, which allows for widely varying interpretations of the Federal law -- and thus leaves open the possibility of either progressive reforms or regressive erosions of voting rights. The dangers and opportunities presented by HAVA make it a topic that progressives ignore at their peril.

The most widely publicized criticism of HAVA revolves around "paperless ballots." A group of respected journalists and computer scientists (many writing in this MoveOn bulletin) have raised an important red flag about electronic voting machines being vulnerable to fraud and manipulation. We should heed this warning, but we should not lose the opportunity to engage other critical reforms. If we focus only on the risks of computer voting, we reinforce the misunderstanding that HAVA is no more than "machinery chicanery." If that happens, we will have squandered the unique opportunity to influence all the other election reforms that are being written, right now, under our very noses.

For example, we should pay close attention to HAVA's voter identification requirements, which Republicans insisted upon as the price of a bipartisan bill. HAVA requires that first-time voters who registered by mail show identification -- such as a driver's license, government ID card or other specified documentation -- in order to vote. In addition, when they register, voters must give their driver's license number or, if they do not have a driver's license, the last four digits of their Social Security number (if they have one). In cases where the state can verify these numbers, new voters who registered by mail and provided one of these numbers would not have to show identification at the polls.

These provisions may heighten the opportunities for confusion and voter intimidation. Some critics envision partisan operatives fighting for victories with "Ballot Security Squads;" others worry about the role of some election officials, who have been known to display suspicion or outright hostility toward new voters, particularly voters of color and newly naturalized citizens. Lawmakers in some states, like Colorado, Kansas, Mississippi, California and Massachusetts, have introduced legislation to enact even more rigid ID requirements in the guise of complying with HAVA. On the other hand, election officials in some states are interpreting the law in ways that will not dampen voting. Ohio, for example, plans to accept many different kinds of IDs at the ballot box, so that no voters are needlessly turned away from the polls. Those who care about increasing participation will have to fight hard -- probably in court, ultimately -- against ID provisions that would discriminate against poor voters, voters of color, young people or new citizens.

HAVA also contains some elements that should improve the election process greatly. The law mandates that voters be able to correct mistakes in their ballots, or to cast provisional ballots if their names do not appear on the registration list or if they do not have IDs. The law requires polling places to have at least one fully accessible and private voting machine for disabled voters, and machines that can perform in other langauges. Each state must create integrated, computerized, statewide voter registration lists. HAVA also dedicates federal funds for better training of poll workers and voter education.

Another important feature of the bill is the mandated "commission" process. To get any federal funding, each state must form a HAVA commission that will recommend how to implement the law. Some states have put together representative, diverse commissions that reflect progressive concerns. California's commission, for example, includes members from the NAACP, the State Student Association, the Coalition for a Living Wage and the United Farm Workers. Other states have stacked their commissions with political insiders. In New York, when the Board of Elections appointed a broad and varied commission, Republican Governor George Pataki fired the chief elections officer and named his own small, strictly controlled commission. Once they have been formed, progressives should hold these public boards accountable to ideals of expansive and inclusive democracy.

HAVA also dedicates federal dollars to poll worker training and voter education. These funds could be used for standard, non-partisan voter outreach, or they could pay for educating often ignored communities, like the eligible ex-felons. The money could pay to train poll workers in the details of voting reforms like Election Day Registration (see below) or Instant Runoff Voting, a system of ranked voting that eliminates the "lesser of two evils" conundrum.

As HAVA plays its way out in the states, two other key reforms have recently emerged as practical, achievable ways to help America vote. Since election laws are administered by each of the 50 states, both reforms are being pushed at the state level. As progressive activists increasingly take their battles out of D.C. and into state legislatures, these pro-democracy reforms are a good place to devote some resources and energy.

Unlocking The Ex-offender Vote

One of the largest scandals in the Florida 2000 election involved "felony disenfranchisement laws" -- laws that strip voting rights from people convicted of certain crimes. Florida's disenfranchisement laws kept over 600,000 citizen with felony convictions from voting in 2000, even those who had fully finished their prison time, parole or probation. That's more than a thousand times the 537-vote margin by which Bush won the state. In addition, thousands of Floridians with clean criminal records were purged from voter rolls because of a botched (some say manipulated) voter registration database.

Felony disenfranchisement laws are not limited to Florida. Across the country, 4.65 million Americans cannot vote because of criminal convictions in their past. There are no federal guidelines about these laws, so their harshness varies from state to state. The most extreme states -- such as Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Virginia -- bar ex-offenders from voting for life.

Who are all these disenfranchised citizens? Disproportionately, they are people of color from low-income communities. In Florida, almost 31 percent of black men cannot vote due to a criminal conviction in their past. Across the country, blacks are denied the vote because of criminal records five times more often than whites. Latinos and Native Americans face similar disenfranchisement rates.

This racially discriminatory effect is hardly an accident. Like poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, felony disenfranchisement laws were intentionally crafted during Reconstruction to exclude African Americans from the political process. White lawmakers in the Jim Crow era were not shy about their intentions. "This plan," said one delegate to the Virginia convention of 1906, which established strict felony disenfranchisement laws, "will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county ... will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."

Fortunately, the American public is ready to throw out these archaic, discriminatory laws. In a July 2002 Harris Interactive poll, 80 percent of Americans agreed that ex-offenders who have completed their sentences should be allowed to vote. Thirty-one U.S. senators recently voted for a measure introduced by Senators Harry Reid (D-NV) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) to grant voting rights to ex-offenders in federal elections. On a state level, victories against felony disenfranchisement laws are racking up. New Mexico -- which used to disenfranchise felons for life -- now automatically restores the vote to qualified ex-offenders. Connecticut recently changed its law to allow 36,000 citizens on probation to vote. Legislation easing disenfranchisement laws has been introduced in Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and, yes, Florida.

This momentum has been harnessed into a strong, multi-racial coalition (including groups like the NAACP and ACLU) that aims to change America's felony disenfranchisement laws. Like civil rights battles of the past, these changes will not be won overnight. But if we can keep our eyes on the prize, felony disenfranchisement laws will go the way of poll taxes and literacy tests.

Election Day Registration

Election Day Registration, also known as "same day registration," allows citizens to register and vote on election day. Six states use EDR systems, and those six states have voter participation rates 8-15 percent higher than the national average. The reason for its success is simple. Many new voters get energized about an election in the last few weeks of a campaign, but most states cut off voter registration 20 to 30 days before an election. If new voters have not registered by then, they cannot participate, and all that energy goes to waste.

"The final weeks before an election -- when the pressure is high, the campaign is in full swing, and the newspaper endorsements are flowing -- often motivate new or undecided voters to cast their ballot if they have the opportunity to register at the polls," says Wisconsin State Senator Gwendolyn Moore. She should know. Her state's EDR system helped boost turnout in Wisconsin to 66 percent in 2000, 15 points higher than the national average.

Polls show that EDR resonates with the non-voting population. In a May 2001 Medill School of Journalism poll, 64 percent of non-voters said that allowing people to register on election day would make them more likely to vote. Fully 56 million eligible Americans were not even registered to vote in 2000. If an EDR system allowed even a small percent of those people to register, it would convert literally millions of non-voters into engaged citizens.

Capturing The Momentum

We have a real and concrete chance to shape the way America votes. This is a moment when state-level work can truly lead to change. Groups in the civil-rights and voting-rights communities are already working together to encourage the best possible implementation of HAVA. Effective organizing for an expansive and inclusive democracy over the next several months will create genuine new opportunities to expand the vote -- but there is no time to waste.

Miles Rapoport is the president of Demos, an organization working to advance voting rights and economic justice.

Visit Demos for more information about HAVA, EDR or Felony Disenfranchisement. You may also contact the National Campaign to Restore Voting Rights at 212.965.0400, ext 219.
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