The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which we had the
honor of chairing with former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter,
has been fortunate to work with Stephen Ansolabehere and his colleagues
at the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project in the course of developing
our Commission's recommendations. As one would expect, the analysis
and technological findings of the Caltech/MIT Project are first-rate
and should serve as a foundation for the meaningful reform of our nation's
Ansolabehere is sadly correct in his claim that "America's voting technologies
are…gravely inefficient and unreliable." This spring and summer,
our commission held four public hearings and talked to hundreds of voting
administrators, experts, and citizens across the country. We heard again
and again that despite the well-meaning efforts of election administrators,
they simply have not been given the attention and resources they need
to assure the American people that our democratic process is fundamentally
fair and accurate for all citizens.
He is also correct in saying that the essence of any reform of our
electoral process should respect "decentralization and diversity," within
the context of equality and voter autonomy. It is not only possible,
but also preferable, for America to have an electoral system with a
limited but responsible partnership between the federal government and
the state and local authorities that run the process year in and year
out. Such a partnership would still allow local jurisdictions to tailor
and improve their voting processes according to the needs of their citizens.
Uniform voting technology on the other hand, would not only violate
the traditions of federalism and disrupt the historical evolution of
our electoral processes, but it would also do harm to the present needs
of many jurisdictions and the future development of new and better voting
In our bipartisan Commission's report released last month, we recommended
that the federal government provide long-overdue financial support in
a revolving fund of 1 to 2 billion dollars over ten years, which in
turn would provide matching capital grants for states to distribute
to local jurisdictions to improve their systems. The federal government
should set policy objectives while leaving the choice of strategies
to the states. These policy objectives include: a statewide voter registration
system; provisional balloting; a uniform statewide benchmark for voting
system performance; compliance with or development of voting system
standards and certification processes that allow voters to correct errors
and that give physically disabled voters opportunities to cast secret
ballots; adoption of a uniform standard in each state for what constitutes
a vote within each category of voting system certified for use; and
evaluation to ensure state and local compliance with federal voting
Within this framework, federal investment in state and county election
administration—in return for the ability to set standards and
test voting machines—is a vital first step on the path of reform.
We, too, recommend that voting systems should have the following: a
documentary audit; procedures for certification and decertification
of both hardware and software; assessment of human usability, particularly
that which allows voters with physical disabilities to cast a secret
ballot; and operational guidelines for proper use and maintenance of
equipment. It is also vital that a federal agency serve as a clearinghouse
for information on equipment use and that local jurisdictions be required
to report their electoral error rates.
This standard-setting must be done in consultation with state and local
officials. Additionally, states should be given the opportunity to develop,
test, and certify their own voting systems in lieu of participating
in the federal program if they believe that they have better methods
for reaching minimal error rates.
As Ansolabehere effectively argues, choosing one voting technology
for the country would not be desirable for our voting processes. Similarly,
the effort to eliminate a single technology—most recently punch
card voting—would not be helpful. While each technology has its
own strengths and weaknesses, certain regions and cities have chosen
to invest and educate their voters in the use of particular systems.
We have found, in Los Angeles County for instance, that punch cards
may be the best, if not the only, cost-effective system to suit the
county's needs. With active voter education and poll-worker training,
punch card devices can produce roughly the same residual error rates
as other machines. Finally, if Congress chooses to spend its money and
political will on just replacing punch card machines, an opportunity
for more comprehensive and effective reform will have been lost.
However, updating and creating standards for voting technology is only
one piece of meaningful reform. The Caltech/MIT Project's findings also
show that our nation's voter registration process potentially "lost"
as many votes as did bad technology. This occurs because many jurisdictions'
voter registration rolls are overrun with duplicate and/or bad names,
and efforts to "scrub" these lists can have the unacceptable result
of accidentally removing eligible voters from the rolls. The use of
a statewide voter registration database and provisional ballots can
greatly reduce these problems. The implementation of those administrative
measures in combination with increased voter education, enforcement
of the voting rights laws, and improvement of the voting process for
overseas and military voters will greatly enhance our nation's democratic
In the final analysis we hope that Congress finds compromise between
the deviations in our respective recommendations and, most importantly,
sets aside partisan politics to use the long-overdue focus on our electoral
process caused by the 2000 election to pass the meaningful reforms that
American voters desire and deserve.
Lloyd Cutler was White House Counsel to Presidents Carter and
Clinton, and is co-chair of the National Commission on Federal Election
Robert Michel served in Congress from 1956 to 1994, was House
Republican leader from 1980 to 1994, and is co-chair of the National
Commission on Federal Election Reform.
Return to the forum on machine
politics, with Stephen Ansolabehere and respondents.