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Julian E. Zelizer

Julian E. Zelizer

Posted: September 25, 2008 04:28 PM

How About Bailing Out The Election System?


Although Congress is now preoccupied by the massive bailout of the financial markets that might cost $700 billion or more, government officials should also be willing to devote some attention and funds to the challenges of the electoral system.

The 2000 election taught us many things. The main lesson was the severely damaged state of our election machinery. The embarrassing revelations from Florida, as well as other states, many of which were seen again in 2004, revealed that every vote is simply not counted.

After 2000, there was a brief period when commissions were established and government investigations conducted about this question. And indeed there was some action. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 to improve the system. The government has spent $3 billion since then to implement the bill. Many states purchased electronic voting machines and reforms were made to the administration of the vote.

But there are many warning signs that Election Day could be messy once again. There have been stories about an ugly recount battle that recently took place in Palm Beach, Florida, ground zero for the contested election of 2000. During a race for the position of County Circuit Judge, Richard Wennet was challenged by William Abramson. The decision led to several recounts, with the revelation that the machines had not counted many votes. The County Canvassing Board has announced that Abramson is the winner but Wennet might challenge that outcome once again. As one of the attorneys for Wennet lamented, "it seems like Groundhog Day."

In addition, there were recent studies by the Government Accountability Office, as well as Common Cause and the Century Fund, that revealed substantial electoral problems in ten swing states. For example, there were almost thousands of votes in Colorado in the 2006 midterm election that were not registered because of malfunctioning computers.

The reports found that in many states the allocation of voting machines had not improved so that all areas are not equal in terms of their equipment. In an era when many of us have been on the verge of throwing our frozen computers out the window, it is frightening to think that minor software problems could result in voter disqualification. One of the corporations responsible for manufacturing the new electronic machines has admitted that votes will be lost as a result of software being used in 34 states, the Washington Post reported.

In terms of voter registration, according to Common Cause, "many of the most pressing problems from 2006 have gone unaddressed, or have worsened." Yet another problem, they found, involves "deceptive" practices, whereby political activists spread false information to dissuade people from voting. Congress failed to pass a measure dealing with this issue and most states have not passed legislation either.

The New York Times reported today that there are thousands of voters who might not be able to vote as a result of home foreclosures, which hit lower income Americans the hardest and might be a big problem in the swing states. As one person told the reporter Ian Urbina, "I've moved three times in the past two years... Keeping my voter registration information was not top of my mind because I figured it was all set already."

Voting systems will never be perfect, but they could be much better. We have seen the consequences when we don't take this challenge seriously. If we are willing as a nation to invest this much in our financial markets, why not make a much smaller investment in our democracy? Until now, most candidates have said that they will be prepared with teams of lawyers and activists to challenge any questionable outcome in the courts. It would be better for the nation if these candidates made this a central issue in their policy agendas.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" (Harvard University Press) and is completing a book on the history of national security politics since World War II.