Monday, December 27, 2004

Washington's recount, issues elsewhere show that reform is needed
Top democracy deserves first-rate voting system

Washington's recount, issues elsewhere show that reform is needed

Ballots mysteriously appeared or disappeared. Vote totals didn't add up. Regional officials barred a controversial candidate from the ballot. And hundreds of thousands of residents registered complaints.

In a developing democracy, such incidents would spark international condemnation and insistence on electoral reforms.

Americans and their leaders should join that chorus, even though those problems happened in Hometown, U.S.A.

This not to say that President Bush's forces stole the 2004 election or that John Kerry was the real victor. Despite the disputed votes in Ohio and elsewhere, Bush won. All that's left to do is count the electoral votes Jan. 6 in Congress.

The system worked. However, it has too many cracks, especially for a country that considers itself the world's leading democracy.

Look back at Oregon's chaotic decision about whether Ralph Nader would be on the presidential ballot. He was doomed by state petition-signature rules that weren't followed to the "T." To a neutral observer, it might appear as over-enforcing rules to hurt Nader and help Kerry.

And Oregon's election was comparatively well-run.

In the Washington governor's race, the vote tally has varied with every count and recount. More than 700 ballots were mistakenly rejected in King County, and it's unclear whether they ever will be counted.

In other states, voters complained about standing in lines for 10 hours, about poll workers not having enough provisional ballots and about machines switching votes between candidates. In many places, voters used touch-screen ballots that lacked paper trails for recounts.

All of this happened after America embarked on voting improvements after the 2000 election debacle.

Two federal agencies, the Government Accountability Office and the U.S. Election Commission, will take a national look at how the 2004 election was conducted. But Congress and the states should take these steps:

# Place elections, campaign-finance controls and congressional/legislative redistricting in the hands of nonpartisan officials. Create an independent election commission or convert the secretary of state's offices to true nonpolitical operations.

# Invest much more in election equipment, personnel and training. Many ballot-counting errors can be attributed to undertrained or overworked election employees.

# Set national standards that require written records for all votes cast, ensure adequate numbers of voting machines in all precincts and provide increased monitoring and faster resolution of voting problems.

# Require states and local jurisdictions to adopt clear-cut standards for tabulating disputed votes and petition signatures. Develop backup systems to audit the handling of such votes. Write those rules in language that rank-and-file voters can understand.

# Examine how other democracies conduct elections to see what we can learn from them.

Oregon's and America's election systems are pretty good, but we shouldn't settle for "pretty good" when it comes to the foundation of our democracy: elections.