Elections

Election Reform: Now and Twenty Years Ago, A Personal Story

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Republican-controlled legislatures across the nation are planning to enact legislation that would have the effect of suppressing the vote. Georgia passed a law to restrict access to voting, known by its critics as the Jim Crow law. More states in Republican hands will do the same. Republicans in the Senate are likely to block a bill passed by the House to protect voting rights.

Why are Republicans afraid of a large turnout? Twenty years ago, Republican leaders insisted that every qualified voter should vote and that every vote should be counted.

In the aftermath of the highly disputed Presidential election of 2000, which was decided by 537 votes in the state of Florida, many of our most prominent political leaders recognized the need for reform of the voting system.

A prestigious commission was created called the National Commission of Federal Election Reform. The co-chairs of the commission were former President Jimmy Carter and former President Gerald Ford. Its composition was bipartisan. I had the honor of serving on the commission.

The commission held several meetings, debated the issues of voter I.D., got a report of the reliability of different voting machines (strangely enough, the most reliable machine was the one used in New York City, which involved pulling a lever to close a curtain, then opening the lever, which punctured the ballot–but that machine was considered obsolete as compared to the new electronic touch-screen machines).

Moving at warp speed, the commission produced a report in August 2001. The heart of its recommendations was that every eligible citizen should be assured the right to vote, and every vote should be counted.

This recommendation, on page 6, was at the heart of our discussions:

The methods for funding and administering elections—from investments in equipment through voter education to procedures at the polling place—should seek to ensure that every qualified citizen has an equal opportunity to vote and that every individual’s vote is equally effective. No individual, group, or community should be left with a justified belief that the electoral process works less well for some than for others.

I have been reflecting on the work of the commission because there were no partisan differences. Republicans did not claim that mail-in balloting was wrong. They did not look for ways to tweak the state systems to suppress the votes of African-Americans. They agreed with their Democratic peers that everyone of voting age should exercise the right to vote and their vote should be counted.

Everyone understood that the voting process needed to be modernized and that there should be both fairness and a perception of fairness.

Now we live in a time when it is hard to imagine Democrats and Republicans collaborating on a report about election integrity without descending into acrimony.

Something very fundamental has been lost in our civic life: a sense of shared purpose; a commitment to fairness and integrity; trust. The well of democracy has been poisoned by spurious claims of fraud that have no evidence to support them.

Some have foolishly blamed the schools (as usual) for not teaching civics. So, we are now to believe that grown men (and some women) run about threatening people they disagree with by brandishing Glocks and AR-15s. We have to look deep into our culture to try to determine the wellsprings of this rage and bitterness and hatred. It didn’t start in the schools.

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