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The last two presidential elections revealed that American democracy is in distress. A full public airing is much needed and the stature of the Carter-Baker Commission promises to garner the national attention and respect required to truly grapple with the scope of the problem. That is, until people begin to look at the make-up of the Commission and it’s agenda.
Perhaps the hottest issue in election reform is making sure that votes are counted accurately. It is now widely understood that paperless computer voting systems are vulnerable to human error, computer failure and malicious tampering and therefore verification of the vote is essential. Paperless electronic voting vs. voting with a voter verified paper ballot (VVPB) is now an issue under consideration in state legislatures across the country. So far, 14 states have passed laws requiring a VVPB, two of those are awaiting the governor’s signature.
Sadly, the Carter-Baker Commission has compromised itself at the outset by including a figure with an embarrassing corporate conflict of interest on the key question of vote counts. Ralph Munro is the Chairman of VoteHere, a company with millions invested in the ‘vote verification’ market. VoteHere is literally banking on the successful marketing of their cryptographic product as the verification method in spite of the fact that voter-verified paper ballots are the solution most recommended by independent computer security experts. Munro should recuse himself to save the Commission from further awkwardness. And, Commission Co-Chair James Baker is invested of the Carlyle Group which owns another voting machine company. The Commission should avoid such improprieties.
A model election is one which is so transparent that the losing candidate and their supporters trust the process completely. Make audits a routine practice of every election and deliver a refreshing boost to voter confidence. The good government practice of routine audits, required in the business world, elevates the credibility of the results. Imagine elections where the candidates truly earn the good will of the losing party. The only remaining decision should be what constitutes a sufficient audit, i.e. what percentage of hand counted paper ballots should be compared to the electronic count to be sure the election outcome was accurate.
Full audits, also known as recounts, are another essential for transparent and credible elections. Rather than fearing recounts election officials should welcome them as an opportunity to build public confidence in the process. Unfortunately in recent years election boards and state legislators have been moving ‘to legislate recounts out of existence’ as one state official describes it, by adding costs to those who request them and creating other hurdles. Administration of meaningful recounts – whether initiated by candidates and/or citizens should be viewed as a fundamental duty of election officials in a democratic nation. After all, if voters do not trust election results, the legitimacy of government is undermined.
Why is voter turnout so low in the United States? A recent survey by California Voter Foundation found that the second most common reason people don’t vote is: “There are no candidates I believe in.” Both infrequent and non-voters agreed: “I don’t feel that candidates really speak to me” (49 percent of infrequent voters and 55 percent of nonvoters). As a ‘bi-partisan’ body, the Commission reproduces a major defect in our electoral system: the straight jacket of the two major parties on our democracy. There is much hand-wringing over how to increase voter participation but will the Commission, with its bi-partisan myopia, be able to see this fundamental flaw? Who on the Commission represents the one third of American voters who identify themselves as independent and unaffiliated with either the Democrats or Republicans?
Indeed America’s bi-partisan “democracy” is failing to effectively represent the views of many Americans. The two major parties have created barriers to ballot access for non-major party candidates. Will a partisan commission address this shortcoming in elections? Limiting voters to two major party candidates is at the root of the voters feeling unrepresented. Partisans prefer to limit the competition of other candidates and keep voters trapped into ‘lesser evil’ voting. Therefore, the obvious solution, ranked choice voting allowing voters to pick their favorite candidate first and their lesser evil alternative second and counting their second choice if the first does not win, will be overlooked by partisans.
Continuing this bi-partisan myopia, where are the independent counterparts to Carter and Baker such as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, Ross Perot and John Anderson? Take note, it was only third party and independent candidates who stood up for recounts in states where citizens doubted the results this past November. Surely these candidates had constituencies beyond their party’s registration numbers, indeed among major party voters.
And who on this Commission will speak against the scandalous bi-partisan Presidential Debate Commission which degrades our democracy every cycle by conspiring to lock out candidates who might compete with their two party monopoly?
Will it stand against the redistricting abuses by both major parties? These abuses result in politicians choosing their voters rather than voters choosing their elected officials. Redistricting is designed by incumbents to ensure protect their seats. As a result most Americans are voting in one-party districts where there is no question of the outcome before the first vote is cast. If this were occurring in Communist China or Saudi Arabia we’d call it a phony democracy.
We hope the Commission proves us wrong but the partisan blinders of the Carter-Baker Commission are likely to leave critical issues unexamined.
Linda Schade is the director of TrueVoteMD.org and communications director of VoteTrustUSA.org.
Kevin Zeese is president of VoteTrustUSA.org and a member of the board of Velvet Revolution.
California Voter Foundation Comprehensive Results of Survey on Voting Incentives and Barriers, http://www.calvoter.org/news/releases/040705release.html, April 7, 2005.
Larisa Alexandrovna, Partisans Discuss ‘Reform,’Questions surface regarding legitimacy of Baker-Carter election reform commission http://rawstory.com/April 14, 2005.