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Fixing America's Broken Elections

by Rep. John Conyers   08 February 2005

published by TomPaine.com

Fixing America's Broken Elections

The election debacles in Florida's 2000 presidential election and Ohio's 2004 election clearly demonstrate that our nation still has a long way to go in the continuing fight for electoral justice. Our nation cannot withstand deficiencies in machines and procedures that foster legitimate questions about the validity of the election outcome. Our democracy is at risk, and the time is now to move forward with election reform legislation.

Because of unprecedented discrepancies between exit poll results and election day official tallies in the 2004 election, I instructed my staff to examine whether there was any basis to theories that such discrepancies were an indicator that voting irregularities distorted official results. To be sure, aberrant results in exit polls are not proof positive of election irregularities. They are but one indicia or warning that something may have gone wrong?either with the polling or with the election?and that the election results bear greater scrutiny. Guided in part by Steve Freeman's analysis of the exit polls, I concluded that more examination of the official results was needed.

My staff reviewed thousands of pages of primary source materials, including copies of actual ballots, voter registration databases, and poll books. They also met with several individuals having firsthand knowledge of irregularities. What they found indicated problems in multiple areas, from machine tampering and malfunction, to the intimidation and caging of minority voters in urban and rural areas, to the purposeful misallocation of voting machines and the unjustifiable restrictions that were placed on the use of provisional ballots.

To be sure, many states did not experience the extent of problems found in Florida 2000 and Ohio 2004 and many, many secretaries of state and local election officials are competent, conscientious and trustworthy. Unfortunately, the lesson of 2000 and 2004 is that partisan or negligent decisions by one state election official in a federal election can result in the massive disenfranchisement of the voters of that state?and the distortion of federal election results for all of us. In my view, these consequences dictate the following reforms at a federal level, which I included in the "VOTER Act" that I introduced last week with Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who led the challenge in the House to the Ohio presidential electors. [See text of bill here .]

My staff found substantial evidence, admitted by a Triad voting machine company employee?in public, videotaped testimony? that he developed documents and manipulated voting machines for the purposes of allowing county officials to forgo a legally required full hand recount of ballots. Other instances of inappropriate political advocacy by voting machine company officials are well known.

One does not have to agree that such tampering has been proven, however, to believe that it must be fixed. The unfettered access for voting machine companies and election officials to voting machines and the lack of security of those machines against hacking has convinced me?and should provide sufficient justification to anyone?that we must have a voter verified paper ballot for voting machines.

To some, a voter-verified paper ballot is only acceptable means of creating an auditable record of votes. They are rightly concerned that any form of verification that is not written as ink on paper may be tampered with in the same manner as the original machine vote. However, disabled voters have strongly argued for different and accessible modalities of verification, such as an audio ballots. In the last Congress, this dilemma helped prevent the passage of any legislation. Besides being the right thing to do, unless we reach a satisfactory solution for disabled voters, no bill will pass in this Congress either.

My bill proposes a simple solution: Let the voter decide. Under my bill, before casting a ballot, a voter could obtain a paper version of the ballot that reflects the voter's ions for each office. That ballot will be kept in a secure manner at the polling place. In the alternative, a voter could obtain another modality of verification and have it retained in a secure manner. Others have suggested that a disabled voter be given access to his or her preferred modality of verification and the machine should produce a paper record duplicating that. I am open to considering any and all means that simultaneously produce a voter verified ballot and protect the rights of the disabled.

But that right to a voter-verified paper ballot is meaningless unless the paper ballot is used. My bill requires election- day audits of voting machines and, if discrepancies are found between paper and machine totals, the use of paper ballots for the official count. In addition, paper ballots would be used for audits and recounts.

For some, fixing or getting rid of machines would end all the problems. This would be a terrible mistake. A machine with a voter-verified paper ballot is useless if you are denied access to that machine by deception, negligence or accident. In the words of Steve Rosenfeld, senior producer at Air America Radio, who testified at my December 5 Ohio hearing, what we saw in election 2004 was a mix of "old school and new school" tactics for disenfranchising voters. If we only combat the "new school" tactics, and leave in place the "old school" thuggery, we will continue to have elections that disenfranchise minority voters and have results which do not reflect the voters' intent.

In Ohio, voters were denied the exercise of their voting rights because of long lines at polling stations?as long as 10 hours?that made it impracticable for many to vote. The intense investigative efforts of my staff revealed that Democratic and urban areas were purposely shortchanged voting machines. It is not random or coincidental that in vote-rich Franklin County, 27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter showed majorities for Bush, while six of the seven wards with the fewest machines delivered large margins for Kerry. Under my bill, we will have federal standards that require a fair distribution of voting machines.

In Ohio and throughout the nation, voters were deprived of their voting rights by trickery, and many of these actions were officially sanctioned "on high." To be sure, we have no idea whether official-looking letters giving erroneous information about election day and voting qualifications were approved by Republican officials. However, the most egregious and widespread examples of such activities, the use of "caging" tactics and partisan "challengers," were initiatives of the Ohio Republican Party. Through my investigation of Ohio, we also discovered that an out-of-state group that called themselves the "Texas Strike Force" made intimidating calls to minority voters and had its accommodations paid for by the Ohio Republican Party. Under my bill, there will be stronger laws with stiffer penalties?including a new prohibition on unfair and deceptive practices affecting federal elections.

In Ohio and throughout the nation, voters encountered an overly complex system of registration and onerous deadline that placed undue burdens on working families. Secretary Blackwell's decision to restrict the use of provisional ballots was not minimal. In one county, more than 1,000 votes were discarded as a result of this directive. Similar edicts, issued by Blackwell, as to a required 80-lb paper weight for voter registration forms created confusion, according to the New York Times , even though Blackwell withdrew the requirement. Indeed, two weeks after the election and more than a month after this edict was withdrawn, at least one county still had it on its website, and it remained on the website of the Secretary of State. Under my bill, every voter would be entitled to register on election day, and to cast a ballot by mail.

It will be an uphill struggle to pass this bill, as it was to put forward a challenge to the 2004 Ohio Presidential electors. As with the challenge, we cannot count on support from the mainstream media, and it will require the efforts our alternative media, and grassroots and netroots activists to continue the climb toward electoral equality. The time to move forward is now.

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