Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Legislative Summary

In the Senate, the first hearings on election reform were held in the Senate Rules Committee in March. The Senate Government Affairs Committee held two hearings in early May, and the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing as well, with Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) promising to revive the issue of election reform by having his committee consider legislation.

In the House, there was initial talk of a bipartisan election reform commission, but negotiations between Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-MO) have broken off. Gephardt has appointed Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) to head a Democratic task force on the issue. In early May, House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney (R-OH) agreed with Representative Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the committee, to produce legislation by year's end, but the House leadership has not to this point indicated what, if any, reforms they support.

When asked about election reform during meetings in January with Congressional leaders and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, President Bush expressed interest in the issue, but he has neither spoken of specifics nor endorsed any current legislation in Congress. At the present time, President Bush's budget does not earmark any funds for election reform.

Voter Disenfranchisement

Many citizens are particularly embittered over the alleged disenfranchisement of citizens of color during the 2000 presidential election. While the events in the state of Florida have received the most notoriety, the phenomenon is not limited to that state in particular.

In Florida, civil rights organizations including the NAACP, People for the American Way, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and ACLU have filed a lawsuit that seeks legal remedies for a wide range of voter complaints, including, polling sites being moved without timely notice; Haitian voters being denied assistance from translators; and intimidation of black voters through the use of state police roadblocks. The ACLU is also representing voters who have gone to court to get the states of Georgia and Illinois to replace poorly designed or defective voting machines that result in unequal and discriminatory voting. The litigation has already resulted in one success; a state judge in Illinois ordered the use of improved voting technology in Cook County for a municipal election held last month.

Another issue that arose in Florida was the need for provisional ballots. Before the 2000 election, Florida hired an outside company to purge registration rolls of ineligible voters (ex-felons are not allowed to vote in the state). Mistakes in this process resulted in hundreds of eligible voters being declared ineligible, the majority of whom were African-American. Unlike many other states, Florida does not allow for provisional voting. Provisional ballots would have allowed those whose registration information was unavailable or incomplete to vote on a separate ballot, with verification to take place at a later time if necessary. Instead, poll workers were forced to confirm the voter's registration on the spot. While some heavily white precincts had computers available to expedite this process, heavily African-American precincts did not have access to this technology. Instead, poll workers had to call central election offices to verify a voter's status. Since those phone lines were constantly busy, the workers often couldn't get through, leaving legitimate voters with no recourse.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings in early January and called witnesses, among them Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Governor Bush and other Florida officials testified that their preliminary state-level investigations had found no evidence of widespread wrongdoing. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is authorized to recommend remedies to Congress and the president, and will issue a final report this summer. Attorney General John Ashcroft has not commented on whether the Justice Department will pursue the matter. At a recent hearing, Senator Fred Thompson (R-TN), while expressing skepticism at the idea of widespread voter suppression, said that if these allegations are true, it should be the Justice Department?s job to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

Voting Equipment

The Florida recount exposed another flaw in the electoral process. Older, more error-prone voting machines, such as the "Votomatic" punch card system, are more commonly used in Florida's poorer districts, while newer types of equipment, such as touch-screen voting and optical scan machines, are more commonly found in wealthier suburban districts. Across Florida, nearly 4 percent of the type of punch card ballots most widely used in Florida were thrown out because machines read them as bland or invalid; optical scanning systems rejected only 1.4 percent of ballots. The prevalence of outmoded voting equipment in poorer areas relates to black voter disenfranchisement. According to the New York Times, 64 percent of the state?s African American votes live in counties that use punch card ballots, while 56 percent of whites did so. As the New York Times editorialized, "Our citizenship is devalued and our historical progress as a nation is negated if we passively accept that a poor, inner-city African American's voice in selecting the next president is not accorded the same attention as that of an affluent suburban voter."

Overcounts and undercounts in poorer voting districts were not limited to Florida. In Atlanta's Fulton County, which uses punch card machines, one of every 16 ballots for president was invalidated, while two largely white and largely Republican counties using more modern equipment, Cobb and Gwinnett, had an invalidation rate of 1 in 200.

Some election observers have disputed the notion that more error-prone punch card machines are disproportionately used by African Americans, including Stephen Nack of the World Bank, who testified recently before the Senate Government Affairs Committee. Moreover, the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Project published a report in February 2001 that confirmed the unreliability of punch card ballots but noted that technological advancement of voting machines do not necessarily guarantee lower rates of spoiled ballots. The study, which covered the last four presidential elections, found that paper ballots, lever machines and optical scan ballots had comparably low rates of spoiled ballots (around 2 percent), while touch-screen (ATM-type machines) and punch card machines have similar, higher rates of invalidated ballots (3 percent).

Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI) have introduced the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Bill of 2001 (S. 565/H.R. 1170). The Jewish Council on Public Affairs, Women of Reform Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly have endorsed this legislation, along with the NAACP, National Organization for Women, AFL-CIO, and ACLU. The Dodd/Conyers legislation would establish a commission to study and make recommendations regarding election technology, voting, and election administration; and establish a grant program under which the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice would provide assistance to states and localities in improving election technology. The legislation charges the commission with investigating allegations of voter intimidation; mandates voting machines have an error rate of 1 percent or less by 2004 and allow voters to inspect their ballot before submission; provides for provisional ballots and calls on states to standardize and evaluate procedures for correcting voter registration database errors.

In mid May, Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) announced the consolidation of two separate election reform bills (S. 379/218) into the Bipartisan Federal Election Reform Act of 2001. The new bill, which has been endorsed by Common Cause and the League of Women Voters, will allocate $2.5 billion over five years in matching grants for states and localities to improve voting technology and voter education programs. The bill would also create a blue ribbon commission to study various electoral reform issues and set up a permanent Election Administration Commission that would administer the funding to states and localities. Voters would be ensured access to provisional ballots, and any new voting machinery purchased in whole or part with federal matching funds would have to allow voters to correct overvotes and undervotes. Finally, the aforementioned machines mush have an error rate no higher than a new national standard to be set by the commission.

Poll closing times

This past election, the Voter News Service (the cooperative exit poll group formed by the major TV networks in 1990) made two inaccurate projections in Florida. Television networks have long been criticized for projecting state-by-state winners in presidential races, while polls in the western part of the country were still open. While voters in the western states were not affected this election, the networks called Florida for Gore while the polls in the Florida Panhandle region (central time zone) were still open, something which Republicans argue depressed voter turnout in that region. The Uniform Poll Closing Act of 2000 (S. 28/H.R. 50), sponsored by Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), amends federal presidential elections law to establish 9 PM Eastern Standard Time as the single poll closing time for presidential general elections. According to the bill's sponsors, 71 percent of the American public favor the establishment of a uniform national poll closing time.

Same Day Voter Registration

Only around 75 percent of America's eligible voters are registered to vote. In presidential races, voter participation has been on the decline since the 62.8 percent participation in the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election. The 52 percent turnout in this past presidential election, while higher than in 1996 (49 percent), is abysmally low in comparison to every other democracy in the world. In the 1998 congressional elections, just 36.4 percent of the electorate voted, down from 38.78 percent in 1994 (the previous off-year congressional election). Six states allow same day voter registration and turnout is 15 percent higher in those states than the national average. The National Elections Standards Act (S. 241), sponsored by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), and Same Day Voter Registration Act (H.R. 128), sponsored by Representative Bill Luther (D-MN), call for same day voter registration in all states.

Internet Voting

Industry proponents and many citizens believe the Internet has enormous potential to make voting more accessible to all Americans. The Department of Defense recently conducted a successful pilot project that allowed military personnel to register and cast absentee ballots online in Europe, Asia and the United States, and Arizona held their Democratic primary this past year online. However, online voting schemes could be affected by viruses and hackers, and leave no means of recovery and recount. Also, unless an ATM-style computer voting machine would print a paper ballot for record keeping purposes, there would be no paper ballot to fall back upon. While a 1999 Wall Street Journal poll found Americans evenly split on the issue, a more recent poll found that 7 out of 10 Americans are opposed to Internet voting.

Weekend Election Day

A weekend Election Day has taken place in some Southern states for many years. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) has introduced the National Election Standards Act (S. 241), which sets the date of Election Day as the first Saturday and Sunday of November. Another idea is to designate Election Day as a federal holiday, allowing more citizens to take the day off so they could vote. The United Auto Workers negotiated Election Day as a paid holiday in their contract, which analysts have said contributed to high voter turnout in key states this year, including Michigan. However, in Texas, where local elections are often held on Saturdays, voter participation is very low. A recent Wall Street Journal poll found more than half of those surveyed oppose the concept.

Electoral College

In the wake of the discontinuity between the popular vote and Electoral College winners, many progressive interest groups, along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, have proposed abolishing the Electoral College. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have endorsed such an idea, and Representatives Gene Green (D-TX) and William Delahunt (D-MA) have proposed constitutional amendments (H.J. Resolutions 3/5) to do so this Congress. In their minds, the framers of the Constitution distrusted democracy and saw the Electoral College as a deliberative body able to correct bad choices made by the masses. The winner-take-all structure of the presidential election creates both the perception and reality that some voters? votes don't matter unless their state is a "swing" state. Those on the other side make a powerful case as well. Marshall Breger, professor of law at Catholic University, argues, "The Electoral College is a way of diffusing power, of requiring candidates to pay attention to small states and small groups within states." Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League says the Electoral College provides greater odds that candidates will not risk ignoring the view of the Jewish community, since Jews tend to be congregated in large electoral states and vote in blocs.

The Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism does not support abolishing the Electoral College at this time. Most analysts feel that despite Bush?s presidential win without a popular vote mandate, a constitutional amendment to abolish the Election College is a political nonstarter.

All Content © Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism