Jewish World Review Jan. 31, 2002 / 18 Shevat, 5762
John H. Fund
Disfranchise Lassie: Even dogs can register to vote. We need election reform with teeth
AFTER more than a year since "hanging chad" Florida, Congress is finally getting around to doing something about election reform. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle says an election reform bill will be the first order of business in the Senate this year. The big battle is likely to be over whether the bill that reaches President Bush's desk merely includes things like buying new voting machines or whether it will also does something about the persistent problem of voter fraud.
The Florida dispute last year proves that public confidence in voting procedures is vital to a healthy democracy. Confidence in the validity of an election is undermined if citizens think their candidate lost merely because of a "butterfly" ballot or because some people, such as felons, voted improperly. People must have confidence the election was fair; the best way to ensure that is to institute procedures that minimize fraud.
The reform bills now winding their way through in both houses of Congress are similar. The Senate bill specifies voting standards for all states to meet by 2005, while the House has looser requirements and requires states to change procedures only if they purchase new voting equipment.
A real distinction emerges with the Senate bill's inclusion of provisions designed to make fraud more difficult. They were put there by Sen. Kit Bond, a Missouri Republican, who saw Election Day chaos firsthand in St. Louis in 2000.
If all registered voters in that city were legitimate voters, then 96% of all eligible adults would be on the voter rolls. That's an astoundingly high number--made possible only by the existence of thousands of deceased, moved or nonexistent voters on the rolls--including a few canine Americans. Such sloppiness is a breeding ground for voter fraud. In close elections, like the 2000 presidential race in Florida, fraud can determine the outcome.
Voter fraud has long been a problem in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Alabama. But it is also increasing in the megastate of California. There, as in a majority of states, voters aren't required to show photo ID to prove who they are. In a country were people must show a government issued photo ID to cash checks, board an airplane or even rent a video, a lot of states don't have the same requirement to cast a ballot--the most direct participation in government most people have.
Fear of being caught isn't that big a deterrent to voter fraud. Prosecuting it is usually a very low priority for local prosecutors. There have been only a handful of cases in the last two decades in which someone has actually gone to jail.
All of this is why Sen. Bond wants at least a few modest provisions to combat fraud. The most important provision in his bill would require all states to compile and maintain a statewide voter-registration list. That would make it harder to have multiple registrations for the same person; it would allow officials to better police voter-registration efforts of big-city party machines. Another provision would ask people who want to vote absentee to vote in person at least once--showing a valid photo ID.
Many civil-rights groups are leery of such reform efforts, claiming they smack of "disenfranchisement." In reality, common-sense measures that make people show they are valid voters ensures that only those entitled to vote are allowed a ballot. Otherwise, the rights of those lawfully entitled to vote are inevitably diluted by voters who should never enter a voting
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©2001, John H. Fund