Election reform gathers momentum

A flurry of election reform bills have been or will be introduced in state legislatures across the United States, many calling for the creation of task forces to study their respective election laws and procedures and evaluate modern voting technologies, including online voting.

At least a dozen states are mounting some type of election reform action, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (www.ncsl.org), an advocacy group representing the interests of state legislators. The action is a direct outgrowth from the alleged voting and recounting problems during the presidential election in Florida and in several other states.

"I think the level of scrutiny placed on the presidential elections this past November generated a desire on the part of our members to work to change what they may feel are the weaker parts of their state election system," said Susan Parnas Frederick, NCSL's law and justice committee director.

She said she isn't surprised by the degree of activity relating to the issue.

"State legislatures are finally attuned to the election process. They, more than anybody, aside from the county officials, are taking the brunt of the criticism. They want to fix things and make things right for the state," she said.

For instance, in Arkansas, State Rep. Kim Hendren proposed the creation of an election advisory committee to study current state election laws, technological advances, laws in other states and problems that have occurred in previous elections. A report would be due by Oct. 31, 2002. Two other legislative bills have proposed similar measures.

State officials and lawmakers in Arizona, Florida, New York, Ohio, Oregon and Pennsylvania have proposed numerous bills in their respective legislatures to form task forces that would look into a range of election-related issues.

In California, several major proposals have been presented:

    * Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg proposed $300 million in grants so participating counties could modernize or replace their voting systems. New systems include touch-screen voting systems, optical scan units or other technologies. Assemblyman Robert Pacheco has introduced a similar bill.

    * Major features of the Voting Modernization Act, proposed by California Assembly Majority Floor Leader Kevin Shelley, would authorize the secretary of state there to help participating counties update their systems through a proposed seven-member Voting Modernization Commission. The act would also establish an online voting program authorizing the secretary of state to develop standards, certification and procedures for counties to offer such systems.

    * The centerpiece of Secretary of State Bill Jones' 10-point election reform plan is the creation of a $230 million Democracy Fund to help counties buy updated voting technologies, including vote- counting software and absentee ballot processing equipment.

New Jersey could have a Voting Technology and Procedures Study Commission following legislation introduced in both houses there. The proposed nine-member commission would study available voting technologies and make recommendations of what types the state should use, examine recount issues, and recommend a uniform policy for conducting recounts in disputed elections. That commission would have four months to formulate a report.

Another New Jersey bill, introduced Jan. 9, would mandate the use of electronic voting machines and would outlaw the use of mechanical voting machines, punch-card systems and paper ballots, except in emergency situations.

In the New Hampshire House of Representatives, a bipartisan group has introduced HB 124, which would establish a committee to study the feasibility of online voting with a report due no later than Nov. 1.

Lawmakers in the Colorado and Connecticut legislatures might consider similar bills, said NCSL's Frederick. "That's a huge issue," she said of Internet voting. "But we don't know what sort of role that technology can play."

Frederick said she's heard of other states planning to study the issue or introduce some type of legislation related to election reform, including Washington, South Dakota, Virginia, Nevada, New Mexico and Maryland.

On the federal level, hearings are planned on at least two Senate bills — the Voting Study and Improvement Act and the Election Reform Act — and several House bills addressing election reform are in the works.

Several national organizations are also conducting or plan to conduct hearings on election reform.

NCSL has formed a bipartisan task force on the topic. The National Association of Counties (www.naco.org) and the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks (www.nacrc. org) are sponsoring a joint commission on it.

The National Association of Secretaries of State has also created a committee, as has the Houston-based Election Center (www.electioncenter.org), a nonprofit group composed of state and local election administrators.

The International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Election Officials and Treasurers (www.iacreot.com), a nonprofit professional association of 1,500 members worldwide, has formed an Election Resource and Review Commission to gather data and offer expert testimony on federal, state and local election reform.

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