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William Lloyd

December 9, 2012

William Lloyd | Now is prime time for tackling election reforms

— Most people are tired of politics. They are thankful that the attack ads have disappeared from television and that the robocalls have ended. Nevertheless, there are significant election reform issues that should be priorities in Harrisburg and Washington.

First, the status and implementation of Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law caused widespread confusion. Although there is partisan disagreement over the need for that law, Republican control of the Legislature and the governor’s office means that it is unlikely to be repealed.

Therefore, the focus should be on making the card easier to obtain so that no one who is eligible to cast a ballot is denied that opportunity.

Furthermore, election officials should be alert to the possibility that checking ID cards will unreasonably lengthen the lines at some polling places; if that happens, there will be a need for more election workers, more polling places, or both.

Second, when the races are for state or local offices, there is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that some states have early voting while others do not, the fact that some states use electronic voting machines while others use paper ballots, or the fact that some states encourage the use of absentee ballots while others significantly limit their use. However, in a presidential election, the rules should be the same in every state.

The goal of early voting and of liberal absentee ballot rules is laudable: To increase turnout by making it easier to vote.

However, the election results can be distorted if a significant number of people vote before the presidential debates are over or before some relevant incident occurs late in the campaign. Scheduling national elections on a weekend rather than on a Tuesday or providing an entire week for voting would be preferable alternatives.

Third, after Florida’s “hanging chads” controversy in the 2000 presidential election, the goal was to implement faster and more accurate ways of counting ballots. As a result, many jurisdictions switched to electronic voting. 

Unfortunately, the emphasis on faster counting has jeopardized an even more important objective: Assuring that the results accurately reflect what the voters intended.

Machines in use in several Pennsylvania counties this year recorded a vote for Gov. Romney even though the voter had pressed the box for President Obama. Although alert voters recognized the problem and brought it to the attention of election officials, it is unclear how many people may have voted before anyone noticed the error.

To this point, problems with electronic voting have been labeled as honest errors. 

However, the lack of fraudulent intent does not justify recording or counting votes inaccurately. 

Furthermore, with the huge amounts of money being spent to influence elections, it is inevitable that someone will attempt to rig the outcome by an intentional programming error.

A reasonable safeguard against both honest errors and fraud would be to require a printout by which people could verify that their votes were recorded as intended. 

Collecting those printouts in a secure ballot box at each polling place would assure the availability of a paper record if the accuracy of the electronic count were in doubt. Some states already have such a requirement. Pennsylvania should adopt one, too.

Fourth, the most aggravating part of the election for most voters was the seemingly unending television ads, mailings and automated telephone calls. Because of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, Congress and the state legislatures lack the legal authority to prohibit unlimited campaign spending by the super-rich and the special interests.

However, there is hope for relief. Congress should plug the loophole in the national Do-Not-Call Registry to allow voters to block political robocalls.

Congress should also force special interest groups to disclose their true identity in the campaign material they circulate. When the Chamber of Commerce or a labor union puts its name on an ad or a mailing, voters can evaluate the information with knowledge of the philosophy of the organization trying to influence their vote.

Unfortunately, that evaluation is much more difficult when the sponsor hides behind some innocent-sounding name such as American Crossroads or Americans for Prosperity.

Making changes in election laws is always a challenge because each party tries to protect those rules that provide it with an advan-  tage.

Therefore, the best chance of overcoming partisan scheming is to act in 2013, when the complaints from 2012 are still fresh in voters’ minds and there is less certainty about whether a proposed reform would help, or hurt, a particular party or candidate in 2016.

 

William Lloyd of Somerset represented Somerset County in the state House of Representatives (1981-1998) and served as the state’s small business advocate (November 2003-October 2011). He writes a monthly column for The Tribune-Democrat.

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