13 states yet to reform voting systems

As Election Day nears, many of flaws marring contests in 2000 remain

October 23, 2002|By Jeff Zeleny | Jeff Zeleny,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ORLANDO, Fla. - Here in Florida, the error-prone punch card ballots have been banished. In California, new voting machines will soon be bought. And in Missouri, new statewide rules are in place if an election lands in a recount because it's too close to call.

Two weeks before voters cast ballots to elect governors, state legislators and members of Congress, 37 states have upgraded, reviewed and changed at least portions of their election laws after deep flaws in the nation's voting system were exposed at the conclusion of the 2000 presidential race.

Illinois is one of the 13 states, according to a report issued yesterday, where lawmakers have not passed measures to improve the accuracy and uphold the integrity of elections.

"It's unacceptable anywhere if we don't at least attempt to make this process work for the voters," said Doug Lewis, director of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group that trains local election officials.

The urgency of national election reform faded in the wake of the historic legal showdown when Gov. George W. Bush of Texas defeated Vice President Al Gore by 537 votes in Florida. Ballots were found to be uncounted and miscounted, over-counted and undercounted in a 36-day ordeal that opened unprecedented scrutiny across the nation.

After more than a year of discussion, Congress approved legislation last week intended to help states improve voting systems. The bill, which President Bush has said he would sign into law, expands the role of the federal government in elections that historically have been administered without input from Washington.

The legislation calls for $3.9 billion in federal aid, which would be passed along to the 6,800 U.S. counties to upgrade their balloting systems. But the money has not been approved and is far from a reality as Congress grapples with a growing budget deficit and a sagging economy.

The Election Reform Information Project, a nonpartisan group that has conducted the most thorough review of state-by-state election reform efforts, issued a study yesterday concluding that voting systems are unlikely to be improved without federal funding or a strong mandate from the White House and Congress.

"While it is not the high-intensity political issue that it had been in the immediate aftermath of November 2000, it is still very much a going concern as a policy issue," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, the group that completed the study.

The findings of the report were presented in Washington, where former Attorney General Janet Reno told of balloting troubles as not only a voter but as a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida.

On the morning of her primary race Sept. 10, Reno said, she went to the polling place in Miami-Dade County only to discover that election officials had not unlocked the doors or turned on the new touch-screen voting machines. She was told to wait outside.

And while Congress has passed the sweeping election reform legislation, the burden to fix balloting problems falls upon states.

According to the report, 11 states passed laws to buy new voting equipment, while 20 changed voting rules and took steps to upgrade often outdated voting registration lists. Other states also passed legislation designed to guard against voter fraud in the case of a recount.

Of the 13 states that took no statewide action, seven legislatures did not convene this year, leaving Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Vermont, Massachusetts and Delaware as the only places where lawmakers discussed but did not reach agreement or see the need for ballot-box changes.

Chicago was allowed to use technology that gives voters a second chance if they make a mistake on their ballot. But no statewide changes have been adopted in Illinois.

"You have the natural reluctance of any legislator to change the process under which they got elected," Lewis said yesterday in an interview. "There's always resistance when they think, `I got elected on this process, I know I can get elected on this process, I'm not sure if I can get elected if we change things.'"

The study released yesterday confirmed findings of previous reviews that determined punch-card ballots caused more problems in Illinois than in any other state. In the general election two years ago, 120,000 ballots, or 6 percent of the total votes cast, did not record a vote for a presidential candidate. The issue did not receive national scrutiny because Gore won the state handily.

"It's not a priority for some people; that's why we have a more difficult time than in other neighboring states," said state Rep. Mike Boland, an East Moline Democrat who leads the Election and Campaign Reform Committee in the Illinois House. "We're dragging behind."

The greatest share of attention, though, was paid to Florida. The Sunshine State devoted $32 million to buy new types of voting equipment and make a variety of improvements to the election system. Gov. Jeb Bush, who faces a competitive re-election bid, said he also has a stake in a proper accounting of votes in the Nov. 5 election, and he assured Floridians after the primary last month that the voting system would be properly working in two weeks.

Jeff Zeleny writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing Co. newspaper.

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