Major Election Reform Falters As States Settle for Tinkering



As election-reform fever ebbs in Congress, it's cresting in many states. But by the time all legislatures adjourn this summer, the result may be basically the status quo: lots of rhetoric urging reform, but few big changes before voters next go to the polls.

By last week, lawmakers had proffered some 1,500 voting-related bills, many hoping to ensure their states don't become the next Florida -- scene of last year's presidential-recount fiasco. "It's an extraordinary number" of bills, says Tim Storey, an elections specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a public-policy and research organization with offices in Denver and Washington, D.C.

Yet despite the heavy interest, it's doubtful the crush of proposals will bring major improvements to the nation's voting system anytime soon. Of the 65 bills enacted so far this legislative season, most merely tinker with existing voting rules rather than effect major change. Many proposed overhauls have been voted down or are effectively dead in the legislatures. And any big reform that does make it into law will take a long time to come to fruition.

Tighter Budgets

A major obstacle is money: It could take years and cost more than $3 billion to replace aging equipment, such as punch-card machines, with modern electronic devices, says a nonprofit Houston policy group, the Election Center. Cities and counties, which own and maintain this hardware, generally can't afford to undertake such costly efforts on their own. And now a growing number of states appear unable to afford it either as the sluggish national economy creates a drag on revenue growth.

"If [states'] choice is aid to dependent children or transportation infrastructure versus solving an election problem that didn't affect them, that might not be a choice," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center.

What's more, Congress isn't exactly rushing to chip in. Congressional efforts to launch a special bipartisan reform committee failed in March as Beltway attentions turned to more pressing matters such as the federal budget and President Bush's tax cut.

Ballot Initiatives

Common topics considered in state legislatures this year


Number of bills introduced

Ballot design


Study commissions


Recount procedures


Internet voting


Exit polling


Source: National Conference of State Legislatures

Still, some big overhauls remain under consideration in at least 18 of the 32 state legislatures still in session. More than 100 bills dealing with voting equipment and ballot design -- over a dozen in Florida alone -- have been submitted since last November's election debacle. A common theme: outlawing old punch-card voting machines and, by proxy, the potential for ballots with "dimpled chads" -- the bulging bits of paper on punch cards that became a symbol of Florida's problems. Such bills are being mulled in North Carolina and Texas, among other states.

Georgia quickly emerged as the most assertive state. Before adjourning in late March, legislators passed a law stipulating "uniformity" in county voting machines by 2004. All of the state's 159 counties must not only use the same style of machines but must buy them from the same manufacturer. The choice of equipment will be left up to Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who has said she wants computerized "touch-screen" voting systems.

Georgia hasn't said how it will pay for the new machines, which manufacturers estimate will cost $35 million to $150 million. So far, only $200,000 has been made available for a pilot program this fall in four or five towns. After that, says a spokesman for Ms. Cox, Georgia will have "to move with all appropriate haste" to find money to meet its self-imposed deadline of 2004.

Baby Steps

Starting small is wise, says the Election Center's Mr. Lewis. Trying to quickly replace the estimated 700,000 voting machines in use around the country "belies the reality of how complex the process is," he says. New hardware should first be used sparingly in small local elections, he says, to iron out any problems before it's deployed in big state and national races.

Rather than tackle such an overhaul, many states are looking to procedural and managerial improvements instead of technical changes. And while there still are costs involved, Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest says "it's generally not millions and millions of dollars."

Ms. Priest's state, which concluded its legislative session last week, passed rules requiring at least two poll workers in each of Arkansas's roughly 2,000 precincts to complete a training course prior to statewide elections in 2002. Anticipated cost: $150,000 covered by a one-time appropriation to offer classes coordinated by the state election board. The idea is that more-qualified poll workers can offer more-effective instructions to voters. In New Mexico, poll workers will be paid more in the future under a bill that passed in March.

Some two dozen states are considering tightening rules governing recounts, like Colorado and Illinois, which are mulling uniform statewide recount standards.

No 'Magic Ballot'

Arizona and Connecticut are considering measures that would allow online voter registration. A few states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, are mulling online voting.

But the Internet doesn't represent a "magic ballot" because there are myriad security and reliability issues, warns the Internet Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington group funded by the National Science Foundation. And even if concerns about online voting are overcome, "having the latest and greatest technology alone is not going to ensure people cast their votes accurately and that votes are counted correctly," says Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, a Sacramento-based nonprofit group pushing for better voting technology.

Meanwhile, 10 states are considering tighter regulations on exit-polling firms. One impetus: the desire to curtail TV networks' ability to use poll results to call national races before polls actually close. Some politicians claim the practice discourages voter turnout in later time zones.

One bill in Louisiana would prohibit exit surveys within 600 feet of polling sites, while another measure in Nebraska would ban them within 1,000 feet. The idea behind such distance requirements is to push exit pollsters so far away they wouldn't be able to reach some voters before they drive away. "What you're seeing in these bills is frustration" by lawmakers wanting to send a message to the news media, says the Election Center's Mr. Lewis, who suspects most courts would consider such long distances unreasonable.

Finally, in perhaps the clearest signal that major reform won't happen anytime soon, bills in two-dozen states have called for task forces to study how best to tackle voting reform next year.

One risk of that approach, of course, is that momentum for change may dissipate. Responsible reform "is going to take a heck of a lot longer than most people anticipated," says Mr. Lewis. Unfortunately, he adds, "the longer you go, the less urgent the issue feels."

Write to Will Pinkston at