Election Reform Is a Tough Task

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Elections are messy. They always have been, but the Florida election called our attention to that fact.

If the outcome in Florida hadn't determined the presidency, nothing about what happened in the 2000 election in the Sunshine State would have been considered out of the ordinary.

Equipment problems, questions and complaints about voting officials from the precinct level up, mistakes by voters, allegations of election fraud, confusion over counting, counting procedures, and the final tally - any or all of them turn up frequently in the many local, state and national elections. Nor is it surprising when you consider that we have 200,000 polling places in 7,000 jurisdictions, and 1.4 million poll workers.

Thanks to hanging and pregnant chads and the like, election reform has been a prominent topic of discussion since the Florida election, with the main emphasis on voting equipment and voting procedures. But it may be easier for voters to overcome those problems than for the system to deal with screwy voter rolls and election fraud.

Those are two different issues, by the way. Counties with no hint of voting shenanigans fail to purge their rolls, or delete legitimate voters through error. People move away but keep their legal residence where they lived before. College students registered in their home counties are counted in the Census where they go to college.

As a result of these and other quirks, it's little wonder that, according to the Federal Election Commission, Alaska had 502,968 registered voters in 1998 - and a voting age population of only 437,000.

In recent testimony before the Senate Rules Committee, John Samples of the Cato Institute said the Indianapolis Star found that tens of thousands of people were on the Indiana voter rolls more than once. A study in Georgia found more than 15,000 dead people on the rolls there.

But the difficulty of keeping accurate voter rolls makes it easier for those who do want to defraud in elections. To cite just one example: after a voter drive before a mayoral primary in St. Louis, the city elections board received 3,800 voter registration cards. When a check turned up some questionable names, election board workers started calling the names on the cards and found out nearly all were fraudulent.

This is not to say that there shouldn't be an effort to improve voting equipment, but real election reform will require dealing with these other issues, too. There is also a question of whether new voting equipment is going to be quickly obsolete.

Changing machinery will be expensive. Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell told a House committee it would cost $120 million to get rid of the punch cards still used by two-thirds of his state's voters.

Technological advances may resolve the equipment problem by making most of it unnecessary. Some high-tech enthusiasts expect us to be voting by Internet from our homes or workplaces within five years, but skeptics question how votes can be authenticated. Another approach being considered is replacing current voting equipment with hookups to the Internet at polling places, following much the same procedure used with the current equipment.

The state of Oregon already votes entirely by mail, and balloting by mail has been conducted on a more limited basis in some other states. Oregon election officials maintain that voting by mail not only is cost effective but also enables them to keep voting lists more up to date. They say ballots returned as undeliverable helps them purge ineligible voters from registration lists.

Voters put their ballots in a secrecy envelope and then in an identification envelope that they sign. The county election office compares the signature on each identification envelope with the signature on that person's registration card. If a signature is missing, the voter is contacted to come and sign the envelope.

A study by the California Research Bureau found that voter fraud is the greatest concern in balloting by mail, but that most jurisdictions using the method contend that it is less subject to fraud than polling place elections because there is both an identification check and a residential address check. Oregon election officials said very few cases of fraud had come to their attention.

It is no denigration of reform efforts to say that improving voting equipment addresses is only one facet of reform. As Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris told a U.S. House Committee, "Problems surface in every election, and each of us know that Band-Aid elixirs will not make these issues disappear.