2000 election alarms fall on deaf ears
Fri Oct 15, 6:49 AM ET
Op/Ed - USATODAY.com
Some people sleep so soundly that nothing wakes them. Not a cannon shot. Not an explosion. Not even their house burning.
Take for instance the people charged with guaranteeing voters full and free elections.
They got their wake-up call four years ago. Florida's voting system was so messed up that the presidency hung in the balance for 36 days. Nationally, millions were disenfranchised.
Short of outright fraud, that's as blaring as election alarm bells get.
But when most voters go to the polls Nov. 2, instead of new equipment, computerized statewide registration and other improvements, they'll find the same machines used last time, few changes in registration systems and little sign of the promised overhaul.
You can almost hear the snoring.
Yet the calamity potential is greater now. Political parties heard the warnings loud and clear. They've fielded lawyers to challenge foul-ups that are nearly assured by states' failure to act. Suits already have been filed.
The 2000 election exposed widespread flaws beyond the punch-card voting devices and their hanging chads that got most of the attention. A study by the California Institute of Technology and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news - web sites) estimated that 4 million to 6 million voters were disenfranchised that year, about half due to registration problems that have nothing to do with voting-machine technology. By comparison, the presidential election was settled by a margin of 537 votes in one state.
Federal law now requires states to let a voter cast a provisional ballot if his eligibility is challenged at the polls. It would be counted only after eligibility is verified. State and local plans for complying with the law vary, and legal challenges have been launched in five of the most hotly contested states in the presidential race: Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Missouri and Colorado.
States are under a federal mandate to create statewide registration databases to help voters turned away because they aren't on a given precinct's list. But 41 states got waivers to put the matter off for two years, meaning another round of disputes is almost inevitable.
More and more states now ask for personal identification at the polls. Again, clashes over identification rules are already in the courts.
Most states have no provision to recount votes automatically in a close election. Some states' recount procedures appear to be at odds with the equal-treatment principles issued by the U.S. Supreme Court (news - web sites) in the 2000 case from Florida.
In this mess, there's plenty of blame to go around. Congress took nearly two years to pass the promised law aiding the states in upgrading voting systems, and the act was never fully funded. The White House delayed appointing the new agency to administer the program, and the agency was then starved by Congress, getting only 12% of the $10 million promised for operating expenses. Meanwhile, most states were struggling with their own financial crises caused by the recession.
Elections are primarily state and local responsibilities. That means the burden of getting it right rests on state election officers. Odds are, they'll hear alarm bells clanging again on Nov. 3. But will they wake up?