Hindering America’s Vote

Steven Hill

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the electoral reform bill passed by Congress in 2002, is a mixed blessing. In fact, HAVA never addressed the most glaring problem of American election administration — the decentralized election bureaucracy of more than 3,000 counties that run elections with few national standards, no uniformity and little oversight.

HAVA does include some positive gains, but those have suffered from foot dragging and stalled implementation. Here is a scorecard of HAVA implementation:

  1. Electoral Assistance Commission: HAVA took a timid step of establishing the most crucial component of good election administration, and what most democracies already have — a national elections commission. The Electoral Assistance Commission (EAC) was given limited powers to assist” states and issue voluntary guidelines. The Democratic Party appointed its commissioners right away, but Republicans didn’t appoint theirs until January 2004. Four months before the November election, the EAC barely functions with seven full-time staff members and a recently appointed 15-member technical standards committee.
  2. Funding for new equipment and training: Congress allocated $4 billion to replace antiquated punch-card voting equipment and to train poll workers. The catch was that the money couldn’t be allocated until the EAC commissioners had been appointed. Hence, by stalling the appointment of their commissioners, the Republicans also stalled the allocation of the money (surprise, surprise). On June 17, the EAC finally sent $861 million to 25 states, but the allocation comes too close to the November election. And training of poll workers remains inadequate.
  3. Provisional ballots: States now must allow voters to cast what is known as a provisional ballot” if they are not on the voter list in their precinct, and election officials must validate or deny each provisional ballot after the election before certifying winners. If used in Florida, voters banned by the notorious felon blacklist could have cast a provisional ballot. But implementation of the provisional ballot has been plagued by the familiar pattern — lack of follow-through, lack of funding, and most importantly, lack of national standards, producing little uniformity from state to state. Some states allow provisionals to be counted if they are filed in the wrong precinct, but at least 16 states throw them out. And few states have worked out details on how to train poll workers to implement provisional balloting, setting up the potential for a ballot-by-ballot fight in any close election.
  4. Statewide computerized voter lists: Despite the critics, statewide voter databases are an important gain that make universal voter registration possible as is practiced in many European democracies where 18-year-olds automatically are registered to vote. Were this to happen in the United States, 50 million voters would be instantly added to the rolls, many of them young people and minorities. Yet no state has made any progress with this HAVA mandate.
  5. Having first-time voters who register by mail provide identification at the polls: Requiring these voters to show proof of identity such as a driver’s license or electric bill was the most dreaded part of HAVA. While it’s supposed to apply only to first-time voters, that distinction already has been confused or misused by poll workers during primary elections this year, causing eligible voters to be turned away. Given how poorly trained poll workers generally are, imagine the confusion this November as some voters are required to provide IDs and others are not.

Here’s one small example of how HAVA played out in a recent election. In East Chicago, Indiana, Helen Hernandez was mistakenly asked to produce identification in May’s primary, even though she has lived there since the 50s and has voted in just about every election. Hernandez complained, but the poll worker rejected her protests and did not offer her a provisional ballot, which HAVA requires when there is a dispute. Hernandez was on a lunch break from her janitor’s job and did not have time to retrieve her identification.

Some of HAVA’s provisions could be major steps forward in bringing U.S. election administration into the 21st Century, setting a course that eventually might put us on par with Brazil and India (both have national election commissions that establish national standards and have been able to successfully implement touchscreen-computerized voting without the conflict and controversy it has produced in the United States). But sluggish implementation has made the gains of HAVA largely ineffective. As a result, we are heading into another presidential election with a Third World election administration infrastructure. Can you say Florida Redux?

Steven Hill is co-founder of FairVote and the author of seven books, including10 Steps to Repair American Democracy” and Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics”. His opinions are his own.

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