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Archive for Tuesday, August 7, 2001

Don’t ditch Election Day

August 7, 2001

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If nothing else, the report of the private, bipartisan National Commission on Federal Election Reform has clarified the partisan divisions that make election reform a surprisingly contentious matter for Congress.

The two parties are divided over whether the government should impose federal standards on the states or offer them cash incentives for going along. Thursday, when a Senate committee approved a Democratic bill that takes the mandate approach, Republicans who want to go the other way were so upset they boycotted the meeting.

Another division concerns the overall scope of the reform effort. Should Congress focus primarily on the Florida-revealed problems of voting machinery and recount rules? Or should it deal as well with broader, long-term concerns over the national level of voter participation?

The commission, headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, took the latter approach, which won't make Republicans happy. Strategists in both parties share the belief, lack of evidence notwithstanding, that expanding the electorate works to the Democrats' benefit.

All of this is expected to come before Congress in the fall, even though President Bush has not given the matter a place of priority on his agenda nor money in his budget. Despite Thursday's partisan blow-up, passage of a bill that provides funding and guidance for reform is not out of the realm of possibility.

The commission report includes a lot of sound proposals for lawmakers to ponder, such as creating voter registration systems on a statewide rather than countywide basis, combining Election Day and Veterans Day into a single federal holiday, and letting voters cast provisional ballots if their eligibility is questioned at the polls.

It also contains some impractical ideas, such as asking the news media not to report election results anywhere until the polls close in California. If the goal is to protect West Coast voters from East Coast numbers, the government should, like some European countries, ban all counting until the day after.

And I was pleased that the commissioners rejected a set of not-so-good ideas that have been offered elsewhere in the name of reform notably running elections through the mail and letting all voters get absentee ballots, no questions asked.

Last year, the state of Oregon conducted its election almost entirely through the postal service. The goals were to increase turnout and save money. Ballots were sent out in mid-October to all registered voters and could be returned anytime through Election Day.

Money was saved, and turnout went up somewhat. But as the commission points out, what's gained in terms of convenience is lost on other fronts.

When Election Day is transformed into Election Weeks, citizens don't have a common base of information when they vote; the balloting begins long before the candidates are finished.

Mail balloting provides what the commission calls "the most likely opportunity for election fraud" although, it must be said, there were no reports of rampant fraud in Oregon. Besides, mail ballots can be hard to decipher and slow to count.

The shared experience of Election Day is one of our few, shared national rituals, and it should not be discarded lightly.

Referring to voting by mail, the commissioners said they hoped "to do what we can to undermine the hitherto largely uncritical acceptance of this 'convenient' trend."

Congress should do what it can to ensure that whoever is registered gets to vote, that polling places are accessible, that ballots are understandable, that voters have the chance to correct their errors on the spot, and that a vote cast is a vote counted.

But let's be sure we hang on to Election Day itself.

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