Taking The Ugly Out Of The Voting Process

By Eliot Spitzer

Two years before the Florida recount, when we as a nation were educated in the good, the bad and the ugly of our electoral process, I had my own experience with a recount, in my race for New York State Attorney General. It had been one of the closest statewide elections in decades, decided ultimately by about 25,000 votes. I personally experienced the uncertainty that can result from the procedure, and I saw how the counting process could be subject to different interpretations and allegations of wrongdoing.

The presidential election of 2000 made it very clear that the deeply cherished right to vote is only as good as the infrastructure we have to support it. That infrastructure must permit us to get candidates on the ballot, to get into a voting booth and cast a ballot, and to have that ballot correctly counted. After that election, and with my own experience in mind, I asked some lawyers in my office to take a look at the process in New York, and to find answers to the question: what can we do to make democracy work better here?

At the time we did our report, New York had four counties that used the same paper ballot that got so much attention in Florida and caused so much uncertainty. Now it is down to two counties. We also lack a uniform state policy of interpreting handwritten ballots. It is clear, in other words, that, while we have been lucky during the most recent local elections, which were more closely contested than usual, the truth is, what happened in Florida could certainly happen here.

Our report came up with several recommendations to make sure that it does not:

Voter Participation
The first principle is enhancing voter participation. In order to do so we propose a statewide voter registration list. This would avoid the common problem of a poll worker being unable to find a voter's name on Election Day, thus forcing the voter to use a paper ballot rather than the voting machine. Of course, we would need to adopt privacy safeguards for the information -- how it could be used, who would have access to it. But this one step would, I believe, encourage more people to show up on Election Day.

Another way to improve voter participation is expanding voter education. Some of us in New York are fortunate enough to receive, from either the boards of elections of various counties or from public interest groups like NYPIRG, something that says, "Here are your rights. Here is where you go. Here is what you have to do to actually vote and exercise your franchise." Any additional efforts to educate the public about the process would help substantially.

Why is enhancing voter participation an important objective? We only have a 40 percent voter participation rate. That is not what one would like to see in a democratic process. A greater voter turnout, incidentally, would not necessarily change the result of elections. I have seen studies that reach opposite conclusions on that issue. Statisticians in particular contend that the 40 percent is a large enough sample to assert that, say, an 80 percent turnout would be very unlikely to cause a shift in election results.

Voter Choice
Principle two is expand voter choice. Theoretically, if you give voters a broader array of choices, more would come to vote on Election Day, because they will be more excited about their candidates. Expanding access to the ballot, permitting more people to participate is a goal we share. The system as it stands is largely closed. Candidates usually get chosen by leaders of their party. The alternative is an archaic petition process. Even though the rules have been simplified somewhat in the past decade, they remain difficult to satisfy. I think we should dramatically move towards a more open process, one that would use greater choice as a vehicle for improving democracy. Two ways this might be accomplished are: 1. reducing by half the number of signatures required on a petition and 2. permitting people to subscribe to multiple petitions to the same office. This would eliminate the effort to knock candidates off the ballot by eliminating double signers. These are two of the very technical requirements that could be eliminated.

Improve the Voting Process
Anybody in New York City knows that the machines do not always work. The curtains donŽt open. You donŽt know whether to pull the lever to the right or the left. Sometimes somebody there needs to go in with you. The machines break down. It is simply not the sort of modern technology that we want. We want to actually improve the process of voting itself. We want to make it easier to get into the voting booth, to cast your ballot without looking at this antiquated machine, that perhaps is forty years old, is difficult to repair and is not always accurate. Right now the only alternative in New York is paper ballots, which are worse.

Improve the Counting Process
We want to ensure that there is accurate counting. We not only want better machinery, we want to ensure uniformity. The rules for interpreting paper ballots must be the same in Utica and in New York City. Somehow we have strayed from that, and this is the issue my office litigated. There is some distance to be covered to ensure the integrity in the process. There is not yet uniformity, or horizontal equity across the state, in terms of how voting fraud is enforced.

One situation my office has greatly improved is physical access to the voting booth. Before November 2000 we addressed county board compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. We found that many of the voting locations across the state did not comply, and we successfully litigated against several counties. More frequently than litigating the issue, we worked with county boards on a voluntary basis to make sure that nobody is disenfranchised or faces difficulty in voting.

The intervening series of crises that we have gone through as a nation probably has dissipated some of the pressure to address the problems in our political process, and thatŽs too bad. The attention span of our political leadership is too short. And it may well be that we can not succeed in legislating as we need to until there is another crisis, another threat of a breakdown of the electoral machinery. That would be a shame. I would have hoped that the events of November 2000 would have galvanized the American public in support of certain simple principles that I think are better served by the sorts of reforms that we propose.

Eliot Spitzer is the Attorney General of New York State. Adapted from remarks delivered to the Bar Association on January 14, 2002.

###

Check out the Feature Archives!