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Archive for Wednesday, September 28, 2005

U.S. must restore faith in voting system

September 28, 2005

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Here's a little quiz for the American public, the half that votes, anyway:

Were you worried that your vote in the last election was counted incorrectly, especially if you used an electronic machine that issued no receipts?

If you were out of town on Election Day, was it a pain in the you-know-what to get an absentee ballot?

If you live in a state other than New Hampshire or Iowa, did you feel you had little or no say in whom your party picked to run for president?

After Martha Stewart serves her felony sentence, should she be allowed to vote?

Answer yes to any or all of these questions, and I have a report you should read. It's from the Commission on Federal Election Reform. While bipartisan, blue-ribbon Washington-based commissions are too often the place where good ideas go to die, this case ought to be different. This ought to persuade Americans worried about the integrity and efficiency of the electoral process to tell the president and the Congress that they need to fix the broken system we currently use to select our leaders. Before the next debacle makes us feel even worse.

"The American people are losing confidence in the system, and they want electoral reform," said former President Jimmy Carter, who with former Secretary of State James Baker, put their names atop a host of sensible recommendations. Such as:

Put states in charge of voter registration. Mandate that when voters move from one state to another, state lists are connected automatically and voters don't have to register multiple times.

Require that electronic voting machines make paper copies for auditing.

In presidential election years, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primaries, hold regional primaries at intervals during the spring, and rotate the order of states every four years.

Republicans tend to worry about voter fraud, Democrats about voter participation - and at least both concerns are addressed in the 87 recommendations issued last week. States should consider the report a first step toward making elections freer, fairer and more efficient. Alas, some states are making mischief, instead.

Georgia, for example. The Carter-Baker panel called for all voters to produce a standard photo ID card before being allowed to vote. A driver's license will do, but for the 12 percent of eligible voters who don't have one, the commission says they should receive a free ID card with the same key information and privacy protections.

The operative word is free. Georgia has a new law requiring that people without a driver's license - who, it must be noted, are disproportionately poor, black and elderly - pay $20 or more for a state ID card. That's a poll tax by any other name and ought to be consigned to history.

The Carter-Baker panel also called on states to restore voting rights to most ex-felons (except those convicted of a capital crime or those whose names appear on an offender registry for sex crimes). The recommendation is aimed at states - 13 in all - that deny the right to vote to all ex-felons either for five years after they have completed their sentences or permanently. The report recommends that these states restore voting rights to all felons once they have completed their sentence.

Lucky for Martha Stewart that her home is in Connecticut. Had she left prison and returned to Kentucky or Virginia, she'd be barred from voting for the rest of her life.

Meanwhile, some Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to disenfranchise parolees and probationers by adding amendments to an otherwise innocuous bill that would overturn a state court ruling and keep parolees and probationers from the polls.

The bill was approved by the House Republican majority in June and faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. Its sponsor, Rep. Marc Gergely, is so incensed by the GOP's amendments on felon disenfranchisement that he hopes his own bill goes nowhere.

"They want to stop voter participation, period," he said.

America has been quite good at extending the right to vote, then taking it away. We need to keep opening up opportunities to vote, not closing them.

Jane R. Eisner is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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