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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Panel Discussion: “Election Reform: A Systematic Business Solution”

DR. NORMAN J. ORNSTEIN, Resident Scholar, American Enterprise Institute:  Defying conventional wisdom, we have a real chance of actually getting something enacted in this Congress.  It’s not going to happen this year, but it’s moving in a way that over the last three months or so most observers would have said just isn’t going to occur at all.

Let me just make a few bullet point observations about the nature of reform and some of the things we need to focus on.  The first and most important point really is that, as in so many other areas, money is the key to all of this.  The fundamental reality is that local officials, when faced with allocating scarce dollars to filling potholes and improving sanitation or to improving their election processes are going to go for the former every single time.  It is compelling politically when you know that you’ve got people, large numbers who will complain if the former aren’t done, very few every couple of years who will complain about the latter.  It will happen that way.

So it’s got to be adequate sums of money to deal with this problem and it can't be, as, for example, the Ford/Carter Commission suggested, a 50/50 match.  That’s not an adequate political incentive.  It’s got to be overwhelmingly federal money in this case that’s going to provide what is necessary.  It is a necessary but not sufficient condition, admittedly, for reform.

We have, with the panoply of commissions that have been created and discussed these issues over the last year, along with people who followed elections for years and years, a pretty good consensus on a core series of things that really need to be done and for which the money will serve as the grease.  Registration systems have to be brought up to date, coordinated, and there has to be a process where you can communicate between central registration places and polling places, as well as motor vehicle places, so that you’ve got a core of those who are registered.

Nobody who comes to the polls and has a legitimate claim of a right to vote should be turned away from the polls.  There has to be a good, systematic, and, I would argue, uniform system of provisional voting in place. 

And we have to do whatever we can to make voting and, I would stress, voting on election day - which is an extremely important part of this - a pleasant and relatively easy experience for people.  That means we’ve got to have machines that work and work consistently, adequate numbers of trained personnel, adequate numbers of polling places, and adequate hours.  You find all sorts of complaints when we have shortened hours and people who work early in the morning come home at the end of the day, find when they get out there are, even a couple of hours before they have to go to work, long lines.  That’s a problem really in this case of money and some will in providing all of these things.

Now, beyond that, I think we need to focus in an area that has proved to be one of least resistance for a lot of local election officials and now some state officials, which is the desire to move more and more towards vote by mail, early voting, no excuses absentee voting.  Because it takes the pressure off on election day.

We’re now discovering, sadly with the anthrax scare, that vote by mail is a much more complicated and difficult process than we imagined.  But what we also know is that beyond all the questions of what it means for elections when you get large numbers of people voting days or weeks before the actual election day, when you take away the sanctity of election day and the actual process of going to the polls to vote, that virtually every election that has a large number of people voting early or voting by mail will take days or weeks to resolve.

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