Originally created 11/20/00

Vote flap revitalizes reformists



ATLANTA - As if waiting in long lines to choose their leaders wasn't bad enough, voters in Georgia and other states returned home Election Night to a presidential contest with no winner.

In the wake of those frustrations, advocates of reforming the election process in Georgia are hoping to harness voter dissatisfaction to gain traction in a General Assembly that thus far has turned a deaf ear to their pleas.

"This is the dirty laundry of elections that is now being aired to the world," Secretary of State Cathy Cox said last week, referring to the nonstop media coverage surrounding Florida's presidential voting. "The good in this mess is we are going to be able to have these discussions."

Ms. Cox and her allies in the House and Senate have been pushing several proposed reform measures with little to show for their efforts. Of five election-reform bills introduced into the legislature since 1997, only one has been enacted.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Bob Holmes, D-Atlanta, allows counties to use electronic voting. But in the three years since the law took effect, none have opted for state-of-the-art electronic systems because of the cost.

Only one of the other four bills has made any substantial progress. The Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation last year allowing early voting, but the measure died in the House.

Under the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jack Hill, D-Reidsville, voters would have been able to cast their ballots up to 15 days before an election, including some weekend days and evening hours. Each municipality would have been required to open at least one polling place for early voting.

Ms. Cox said early voting is resulting in shorter lines at the polls in states that use the system.

"In every state that uses it, election officials love it and the people love it," she said.

Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, said his father recently delayed a fishing trip so he wouldn't be out of town Election Day. Such schedule rearranging wouldn't be necessary with early voting, said Mr. Stephens, who co-sponsored a bill this year calling for Internet voting.

But early voting has its detractors among elections officials and in the academic community. The Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, a Washington-based think tank, objects to any system that allows people to vote days apart because they make their choices based on different information.

Hans A. von Spakovsky, a member of the Fulton County Board of Elections, said early voting also could make it easier for local officials with a political agenda to influence the results.

"Counties could selectively choose to open certain places to early voting," said Mr. von Spakovsky, also a board member of the Atlanta-based Voter Integrity Project.

Mr. von Spakovsky and others on the Fulton elections board plan to mount an effort to persuade their county commission to do away with the punch-card voting system being used in Georgia's most populous county. Problems with the punch cards in Palm Beach County, Fla., are at the heart of the controversy that has delayed the outcome of the presidential election for so long.

"The good thing to come out of this election is it has made a lot of people realize it's an outdated system," he said.

Even if Mr. von Spakovsky and his allies get their way in Fulton County, 16 other Georgia counties still use punch cards.

While 67 of the state's 159 counties use optical scanners, widely considered the most reliable system short of electronic voting, 73 use cumbersome voting machines operated by pulling levers, and two still use paper ballots.

Ms. Cox said the best solution would be switching to a statewide voting process. A uniform system would allow the state to standardize voter education and training for election workers, she said.

Lance Ward is the chief elections official in Oklahoma, one of only two states that have a statewide voting system. He said the benefits of such uniformity were evident in his state as recently as last week.

"We had a sheriff's race recount in a county that hadn't had a recount in 10 years," Mr. Ward said. "No one (in the local election office) had ever been through one, yet they knew how to do it. They could turn to us for training, procedures and manuals."

To move toward her goal of a statewide system for Georgia, Ms. Cox said, she plans to ask the General Assembly this winter to fund a pilot program involving an electronic system that would be set up in a representative sample of 25 counties. Voters would be able to access a secure statewide computer network with an ATM-type card, using a touch-screen computer.

If the test is successful in 2002, the secretary of state would look to expand it statewide in 2004, with the state footing the bill. Currently, local governments pick up the tab for elections.

"I don't expect the Legislature will pass an unfunded mandate," she said. "If you spread it out over four budget years, it wouldn't be a tremendously expensive proposition for the state to undertake."

Ms. Cox said the uncertainties swirling this election season will give her an opportunity to make a strong case for her proposals during the upcoming legislative session.

"If we hadn't had this mess this year, there's no way I could convince the public and General Assembly that we need to make changes and get our system into the 21st century," she said.

But Raymond Wolfinger, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said election reform advocates shouldn't count on recent developments to sway either the public or state legislatures.

Mr. Wolfinger, who specializes in voter turnout and voting behavior, doesn't see a groundswell for change after the closest presidential election starts to recede into history.

"Not only do people have short memories, but the obvious rejoinder is `What are the chances it's going to happen again?"' he said.

Bills introduced

Of five bills introduced into the General Assembly since 1997 designed to make voting easier or vote counting faster, only one has become law. Supporters of election reforms hope the long lines of voters and the uncertainty surrounding this month's presidential election will boost support for their efforts.

Bill number.......Provisions.............Date introduced...Status

House Bill 544....Allows both mail-in and...................

..................on-site early voting,......................

..................voting place must be open.....................

..................two Saturdays before election....2/11/97........no action

House Bill 1268...Allows electronic voting.....1/15/98........enacted

House Bill 777....Requires receipts for voters......................

..................who register at driver's........................

..................license offices.................2/24/99........no action

Senate Bill 235...Allows on-site early voting,..............................

..................opening hours for voting places...........................

..................varies according to size of................................

..................jurisdiction....................3/1/99.........passed Senate

House Bill 1762...Allows Internet voting..........3/20/00........no action

Source: Georgia General Assembly

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.