November 04, 2003,
November 7 will mark three years since Americans first encountered Florida's dimpled chads and butterfly ballots, along with ballot-box hijinks in St. Louis and elsewhere. With the November 2, 2004 election just a year away, state and local officials and the media have work to do to keep a possibly close election from devolving into another constitutional crisis.
The federal Help America Vote Act, adopted after the recount debacle, offers some hope for improvement 12 months hence. HAVA provides $3.5 billion to states and cities to update their election equipment and oversight. Congress is expected soon to appropriate $1 billion above the $500 million that President Bush requested for these purposes.
On the hardware front, some jurisdictions still will employ those nettlesome punch-card ballots. In fact, many California communities did exactly that in the complex yet relatively trouble-free October 7 gubernatorial recall. Voter education can help avoid a Palm Beach-sized imbroglio next year. Reminding electors to poke fully through their ballots, detach chads and swap spoiled voting cards for fresh ones could prevent tabulation chaos.
Electronic, ATM-style voting machines are emerging as jurisdictions modernize. That should help, but officials should insist on hacker-proof software and mechanisms that produce paper records that could be audited in case of malfunction, tampering or sabotage.
States and cities also should inoculate themselves against fraud by tidying up their voter rolls. Missouri Senator Christopher Bond (R.), a leading election reformer, often discusses several registered voters: California's Barnabas Miller, North Carolina's Parker Carroll, Washington, D.C.'s Packie Lamont, Floridian Cocoa Fernandez, Maryland's Holly Briscoe, Texan Maria Princess Salas, and Ritzy Mekler of Missouri.
"These registered voters are really a new breed of American voter," Bond explains. "Barnabas and Cocoa are poodles. Parker is a Labrador. Maria Princess is a Chihuahua. Holly is a Jack Russell Terrier, and Ritzy is a Springer-Spaniel."
Bond discovered that West Virginia's Mingo and Lincoln counties had more registered voters than residents. Alaska had 502,968 electors but only 437,000 voting-age citizens. Some Missouri voters were registered in as many as five different locations. California's electorate included Mexican citizen Mario Aburto Martinez, who assassinated presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in Tijuana in 1994. Richmond auditors learned that among 1,500 dead Virginians registered, 144 managed to vote in November 2000.
Federally required computerization of voting rolls should help clean up this mess. So would congressional relief from the 1993 "Motor Voter" law that actually prohibits authentication measures on postal registration cards.
HAVA requires mail-in registrants to present identification the first time they vote. That barely helps. Imagine your bank requiring new customers to identify themselves only for their first transactions. If Americans show photo ID every time they cash checks, they should do so whenever they vote.
Liberals who bellow that such "racist tactics" would intimidate minority voters consider blacks and Hispanics too meek and stupid to carry driver's licenses, library cards, work ID, and similar documents. What bigots!
America should import a practice I noticed while observing elections in Nicaragua in 1994. Before leaving the polls, voters dipped their right thumbs in small cups of blue ink, dried them off, then walked away. This strongly and inexpensively dissuaded citizens from voting early and often.
Finally, the media could help by shutting our pie holes until the final vote drops into the last ballot box. Rather than reveal exit polls and forecast electoral votes as each state's precincts close, journalists should wait until balloting has concluded out west before announcing who won the White House. It would be far better for Americans to have a few more drinks at election parties while awaiting genuine results than to watch projections of Eastern and Central victories suppress turnouts in the Mountain and Pacific states.
The fourth estate fouled Florida's 2000 vote by claiming that balloting had ended while panhandle precincts in the Central time zone remained open. Such malpractice in 2004 could lead Congress to regulate election-night media behavior. Rather than trigger such legislation, reporters should act patriotically and let Americans vote in peace. Then, tell the world how they voted.
Officials and journalists should spend the next 52 weeks making the next general election a national point of pride rather than a global punch line.