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Help America Vote Act

by Susan Reefer, Jan 21, 2004
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When the Help America Vote Act was passed by Congress in late 2002, it was widely praised as a long-overdue upgrade of voting technology, and a much-needed balm to the wound that was the 2000 Presidential recount. The legislation, which was passed by huge super majorities in both houses of Congress, included close to $4 billion in federal funds to state and local governments, and a tight four-year timetable in which to come into full compliance.

The law stipulates that within those four years, voter rolls must be computerized, and centralized; in many states, lists of registered voters are kept by counties or localities, but there is no comprehensive statewide list. The law also says that those lists must be linked to the state agency that issues driver's licenses, to ensure accuracy and prevent fraud.

In addition, it requires that any voter who shows up at a polling place be given a chance to vote that day, even if his or her name doesn't appear on the voter registration list.

And many of the existing voting machines would need to be systematically replaced. The new law requires voters to be given the chance to correct any mistakes before casting their final choices. This is an important provision, not only because some of the machines really do break down constantly, and have been known to drop votes completely, but because it goes to the confidence of voters in the system. We are accustomed to electronic data, and we have come to expect that any time we make a selection, it won't be final until we press enter, or select, or say, "That's my final answer." And now the law confirms this, and requires states to protect voters from casting the wrong vote due to a simple mistake.

Think of it. No more hanging chads, no more butterfly ballots. And no more of those sluggish, temperamental voting machines that look like they belong in the Museum of American History.

During this four-year timetable in which all these reforms must be implemented, all states are required to go through the process of holding hearings by a specially appointed task force to decide how to implement this legislation and spend the federal funds. This is the stage that most states are completing right now. In New York State, the task force held a hearing this summer in New York City. Although the New York State task force did issue a report, they were criticized for failing to provide specific recommendations.

The Century Foundation, a nonprofit think tank, had previously commissioned a study that raised doubts as to whether the Help America Vote Act would in fact provide the kinds of real reforms that were promised at its passage. At the hearing this summer, Tova Andrea Wang, a Century Foundation Senior Program Officer and Democracy Fellow, testified to her view of the legislation and its implications. "Implemented well, the law could mean an expansion of voting rights not seen since 1965," Wang said. "Done poorly, greater disenfranchisement becomes a risk."

This new legislation does represent the biggest single set of voting reforms seen since the Voting Rights Act, but the volume of the legislation may be deceptive. The most serious cases of voter disenfranchisement, those due to language barriers, or illiteracy, may not be addressed by even this sweeping legislation.

Many of the problems that resulted in New York having the greatest number of lost votes in the nation in 2000-- greater than the number of lost votes in the rest of the nation combined-- were technological failures. They were the collective failure of machines to do the job they were created to do. But many of the problems that New York voters and New York election officials faced just one year later were not technological failures but human ones; the failure of people to do the job they were hired to do, and the failure of the city to hire adequate workers to do the job, period.

Granted, the challenges presented to New York's Board of Elections may be greater, and are certainly different, than the challenges faced by other parts of the nation. But the problems that New York faces are easily identifiable, if not as easily solved. In New York, there is a need for translators, and adequately trained poll workers who understand how to administer the voting procedures. And lots of them. And finding, training and retaining thousands of workers for a one-day assignment, one that requires a clear understanding of the subtleties of a new law, an appreciation for the dynamics of a diverse populace and a commitment to the integrity of the process, well, that is a more complicated problem that just replacing a piece of equipment.

The strategy for implementing the Help America Vote Act will continue to evolve in the states in the coming year as the law's timetable continues to run down. Eventually, changes will be made, and they will represent, one way or the other, the biggest changes in the logistics of American voting in several decades. But it will require continued vigilance to ensure that those technical changes result in real differences in the voting rights of Americans, both in New York and throughout the nation.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

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