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Voting and Democracy: The Challenge Ahead

Friday August 01, 2003

The trustworthiness of our nation’s voting system is the essential link to hopes for fairness, social justice and the future of our country. If Americans are excluded from voting or feel their votes don’t or won’t be counted, their investment in their communities and society is dramatically eroded. With corruption in our elections, the country can be dominated by an unrepresentative minority and our aspirations for a healthy democracy thwarted. 

After the 2000 election debacle in Florida and other states, the very nature and competence of our voting system was called into question. All measure of voting security irregularities were documented, including suspicion of fraud, voter roll purges, language barriers, obstacles to disabled voters and insufficient or undertrained staff. 

To address these formidable problems, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed by Congress after much struggle. But the passage of the Act was just the beginning. Its implementation, which falls on the states, is being contested across the country. To help protect the future of voting, especially for those who have historically been shut out, engagement with and monitoring of the implementation of HAVA is essential to ensure the success of a new system. Voting fairness is a crucial issue for all of us working for change. 

The advent of electronic voting has also introduced a host of new problems that have recently been dramatically exposed. The companies developing and installing these machines are owned, to a large extent, by Republicans and conservatives. There are not enough checks and balances on these companies, which continue to insist that the code in their machines is proprietary. The situation increasingly suggests the privatizing of our election process and the removal of the transparencies and non-partisan involvement of public servants that has provided the public with some confidence that the system is fair. 

The problems with touchscreen voting machines and the lack of a voter-verifiable paper trail is currently a hot topic. Traveling the Internet like wildfire, the story has recently broken through to the New York Times, NPR and CNN. Fear of computerized voter roll purging and the manipulation of election results has caused tremendous anxiety among election reformers as well as computer professionals. Perhaps just as alarming, some paranoid writers have suggested that the next election is all but lost due to the new technology. 

The problem with this worst-case thinking is that it creates the potential for self-fulfilling prophesies, due to its negative impact on would-be voters, especially young people and those already alienated. Fearing conspiracy, more and more voters succumb to cynicism, give up on the system and stay home on Election Day. And who benefits from a shrunken electorate? Conservatives and the current administration. Since right-wing views represent a distinct majority the more people who don’t vote (more than 100 million in the U.S.) the more likely that Bush & Co. will prevail and the conservatives will stay in power. 

So we have a challenge ahead of us. We must push hard on the reform opportunities. It is important to have new machines in place by 2004 to restore confidence and not discourage more people from voting. We must ensure that other potential reforms included in HAVA will be implemented, resulting in more competent staffing at the polls, making it harder to purge voters and easier for everyone, including the disabled, to vote. At the same time we must insist that voting machine manufacturers sell systems that support voter-verified individual ballots and an accurate ballot audit trail—while being cognizant that some of this technology may not be ready and that paper, in the past, has been the source of significant instances of fraud and abuse as well as being problematic for the blind. 

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.