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Counting on Democracy

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In the next few weeks we'll hear a lot about every American's most fundamental right: the right to vote. Much of the rhetoric will find fault with office seekers or a disinterested populace that can't be bothered to vote. Not much will be said, though, about a vast set of laws and customs that keep many of us from participating in our democracy.

There's a lot at stake in 2010, as in every election. We'll choose people to represent us in state houses and Congress and make decisions that affect each of us in profound and personal ways. This is something we should strive to get right, every time.

In the last presidential election, up to 3 million eligible voters were excluded because of confusing, inadequate, unnecessarily restrictive, and unlawfully or mistakenly interpreted voting laws. Many cast provisional ballots that went uncounted. Others were turned away because they weren't carrying what a registrar or precinct worker considered proper identification or proof of citizenship. Some were deceived by phone calls directing them to phony polling places or erroneously listed voting hours.

The American system of voting and election fails more of us every year. Today, Common Cause and our partner Demos are releasing a report that documents the flawed processes and inadequate protections that could impact enough voters to determine election results, especially in 10 states likely to have close elections in 2010. Some of our key findings are simply astounding:

* Six states allow voters to cast "provisional ballots" in the wrong precinct but then don't count them.
* Several states have failed to fully implement the National Voting Rights Act, thwarting its attempt to foster political participation among lower-income Americans.
* Many states make it much too easy for any voter to challenge another's right to vote and lack clarity about how registrars or poll workers should decide those disputes.
* Several states allow overseas absentee voting by fax or online, leaving ballots subject to tampering and denying voters a secret ballot.

The noted British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote that, "It's not the voting that's democracy, it's the counting." If he's right, then we have to get better at the counting, not just of people and votes but of processes and protections. True democracy requires elections that are accurate, accessible, and accountable to the voters.

Over the next few weeks, we'll be talking about the need for election reform. Common Cause and our partner organizations have real solutions that can help achieve the true democracy we deserve.

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