Election Officials Report Mixed Success on Reform
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Members of the National Association of State Election Directors, a reform-minded group long before last year's presidential election mess in Florida, met in Arkansas last weekend (July 14-15) to compare notes on the progress of election reform around the country -- and found there was little to cheer about.
Jeannette Heinbockel, election director for the host state of Arkansas, described the legislative session in her state as "the worst ever." Legislators came to Little Rock in a mood to take action to prevent a repeat of what happened in Florida, but failed to come up with a realistic solution for similar problems at home, she said.
Connecticut election director Tom Ferguson told about sprinting from one committee meeting to another in his state capital of Hartford to testify on more than 250 election reform bills. In the end, however, the Democratic legislature and Republican governor wound up in a standoff. One bill, restoring the voting rights of felons on parole or probation, passed.
"It was frustrating," Ferguson said. "It was unbelievable."
A number of other election directors said they also faced the delicate task of bringing the legislative musings of reform-minded lawmakers "back to earth," reminding elected officials of the limits and dangers of overhauling voting practices and systems.
In Missouri and Texas, lawmakers established commissions to study election reform but rejected any measures that required new spending. In Alabama, where the legislature wrapped up its work in the early spring, election director Anita Tatum said not a single voting reform measure became law.
Tatum and other election officials pushed for a bill that would have required voters to show identification at the polls, a bill that would have changed the rules but not drained state coffers. The bill failed to impress lawmakers.
New Mexico lawmakers tweaked their election laws, but did not enact any major reforms. The state will now require identification from voters and will make it easier for convicted felons to have their voting rights restored after they serve their sentences.
Not all election directors reported little or no progress. Oregon lawmakers passed 10 election reform bills, including a $2 million appropriation to create a centralized voter registration database. Indiana will invest $9 million toward the purchase of optical scan voting equipment and an upgraded voter registration database.
Florida, Maryland and Georgia will all make significant investments to upgrade their voting machines and improve voter registration, voter education and poll worker training.
Edward Kast, Florida's assistant election director, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and perhaps felt a bit of envy -- when he reported on the major election overhauls in his state. Florida will spend nearly $30 million to replace its infamous punch card machines with optical scan voting systems, educate voters and make a registration database that will avoid the widespread purges many voters endured in the last election.
"We just have gone through and fixed everything," he said.