Long-term federal funding for election reform is essential to avoid highly litigated elections and ensure voting integrity, according to members of a commission co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.
“There is some reason why 40 percent of Americans do not vote,” Carter said. “We hope to address that question.”
The commission held its first meeting in the McDowell Hall formal lounge, where its members discussed voting fraud, electronic voting and how to best implement an act called Help America Vote, among other topics.
Carter and Baker both said the commission seeks to examine voting from a fresh perspective, especially issues concerning polling problems.
“Many times the issue revolves around the question of access versus integrity, and I don’t think those two things should be juxtaposed against each other,” Baker said.
The event was hosted by AU’s Center for Democracy and Election Management, which was formed in 2002. Professor Robert Pastor, the center’s director, worked with Carter for 25 years at the Carter Center, a human-rights organization that promotes fair elections worldwide.
The Carter-Baker commission will meet twice this summer, and Carter will return to AU to discuss the group’s conclusions on Sept. 19. The findings will also be presented to members of Congress.
“I think this is a remarkable opportunity for American University to be the site and to play such a critical role as a group of leading American citizens evaluate our election process,” Pastor said. “Many students and faculty have taken part in it, and it also will help to build the Center for Democracy and Election Management as a premier center on the subject.”
Student Government President Kyle Taylor attended part of the meeting and said he was impressed that AU attracted Carter and other high-profile politicians. AU is the perfect kind of school to host an event like this, Taylor said.
“I think there’s a reason we come here,” he said. “We’re very connected, concerned and interested. So many students wanted to be in that room.”
The commission included AU President Benjamin Ladner, former Sen. Tom Daschle and representatives from the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and other organizations.
Few students could watch the event due to limited space and the Secret Service’s tight security.
Outside McDowell, about 10 protesters from a variety of liberal organizations questioned the legitimacy of the committee. They put up posters that read “Oxymoron: James Baker and election reform” and other messages. The group also erected a paper-and-cardboard effigy of Baker, who represented George W. Bush in the contested Florida elections in 2000.
“We don’t think James Baker should be involved in this,” said Ted Glick, one of the protesters. “He did everything to keep the Florida vote from being recounted ... and purged African American votes.”
The Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002 in response to the highly contested 2000 elections, is an important first step in addressing U.S. elections, the commission found. After more close margins in the 2004 election, the issue of voting integrity and accuracy is one the government must continue to examine.
A similar commission, chaired by Carter and former President Gerald Ford in 2001, and the Help America Vote Act “were helpful but did not go far enough,” Pastor said.
The act was the first time in history the federal government put money into the election system, and the commission concluded the funding should be long-term. The act authorized Congress to spend about $4 billion to update voting machines and make other improvements, but only about $1.5 billion had been provided as of last November, The Washington Post reported.
Lack of funding may contribute to election inaccuracy more than deliberate fraud, said John Fund, a panelist who sits on The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and has written a book about voting.
“I am not one of those who makes the statement that fraud is widespread in this system. I have a more subtle argument,” he said. “Our election system is so sloppy that you cannot tell where incompetence ends and fraud might begin.”
The committee also focused on electronic voting systems, which may compromise voting integrity because it is difficult to make sure votes are secure, according to panelist David L. Dill, a Stanford University professor who created VerifiedVoting.org.
“Unfortunately, the advent of paperless voting ... is moving us away from election transparency,” he said. “E-voting technology is extremely opaque. No one can scrutinize some of the most critical processes of the election, such as collection of ballots and counting of votes, because those processes will be conducted invisibly in electronic circuits.”
Carter suggested that an electronic machine that also prints out a paper ballot to confirm the vote could ensure each ballot is properly processed. If doubts arose, election officials could refer to paper records of the ballots.
The commission agreed that the electronic voting must constantly be re-evaluated as technology changes.