Mixed review

September 21, 2005

Jimmy Carter, former Democratic president and Georgia governor, couldn't be more adamant in his contempt for the voter identification law in his home state.

He called the requirement for a hard-to-get, state-issued photo ID that would have to be purchased an "abomination," "directly designed to deprive older people, African-Americans, [and] poor people of a right to vote."

Even so, Mr. Carter backed a similar, though weaker, requirement as part of a package of election reforms recommended by a commission he chaired with former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, a Republican insider.

This political bargain is not one we would have struck. Requiring photo IDs -- no matter how easy they may be to acquire -- discriminates by definition against the groups Mr. Carter mentioned and fails to address a far more likely source of fraud and error: voter registration.

Yet the ID controversy should not obscure the rest of the reform package, which contains a number of proposals to make the process more fair, more trustworthy and more representative. It might even lure some fallen-away voters back to the polls.

Most urgent is the recommendation that states such as Maryland that rushed to buy electronic voting machines in the wake of the 2000 Florida hanging-chad debacle equip these devices with a paper backup. Individual voters want to ensure their choices register properly, and paper records are necessary for recounts in a close race.

"It's a simple technological matter," Mr. Carter said, yet one that Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has yet to embrace. He should do so quickly, before next year's state elections.

A more sweeping, and long-overdue, change would scrap the silly presidential primary system, which disenfranchises most of the country. In its place would be four regional primaries, with the first in March, followed by one each month through June. The order would rotate between elections so each region would get a chance to go first.

The commission left in place at the top of the schedule, however, the January Iowa caucuses and the February New Hampshire primary. Mr. Carter said he saw no gain in disturbing that "hornets' nest" of certain resistance.

Republican and Democratic party officials should endorse the proposal and put a new primary calendar in place before the presidential contest of 2008.

There's no doubting Mr. Baker's assessment that "election politics is not easy." But reforms adopted since 2000 haven't gone far enough to win the confidence of the American people. Without that confidence, there's not much point in having elections.

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