In comments on my “Democratic Agenda” post (scroll down two), Bernard Yomtov lays out an agenda of voting-related issues for the Democrats to push early in the new Congress:
*Require states to allocate polling places and equipment in such a way that voting is roughly equally convenient statewide, in terms of likely waits, access to polling places, etc.
*Prohibit the use of any voting system that did not provide a paper audit trail.
*Make it a felony to deliberately misinform voters about voting places or days.
*Extend the do-not-call list to cover political robocalls.
*Establish expedited methods for dealing with problems that arise on voting day or shortly before.
*Require a serious non-partisan analysis and testing, and appropriate certifications of voting equipment before it can be used.
In general, I think a Voting Rights Act of 2007 would be a great idea. As I understand it, there are Constitutional limitations on the capacity of Congress to dictate vote-casting-and-counting practices to the states, but almost anything can be achieved by tying it to Federal funding. (The lack of adequate numbers of highly competent pollworkers is a major problem; I’d propose to solve it by offering a $500 federal scholarship to any college student willing to undergo training in local voting procedures and work the polls at no fewer than three elections.)
I wouldn’t back Bernard’s plea for banning political robo-calls; instead, how about a ban robo-calls of any kind that call back on hang-up, unless the recipient of the call has consented in advance? (False-flag repeat robo-calls of the kind the RNCC spent millions of dollars on this year are already covered by laws against use of the telephone to harass and annoy and against the use of interstate communications facilities to defraud, and if the Justice Department isn’t aggressive about pursuing the cases from 2006 the authorizing and appropriations committees should ask why, and keep asking.
Given the distances rural voters have to drive, it would be hard to come up with standards that would really make voting equally convenient everywhere. An alternative would be to require that every precinct have paper ballots available for those who want to use them at any time when the wait to vote exceeds 30 minutes.
To the oft-heard query “Why don’t we just go back to paper ballots?” there are four good answers: they’re not adequately handicapped-accessible; they’re not actually hard to cheat with (although the cheating is mostly decentralized; they suffer from high rates of voter error, leading to many votes not counted; and they would extend the counting process for at least hours and perhaps days. Yes, lots of countries use paper ballots, but none of them elects dozens of officials at once or uses plebiscites routintely, as we do.
But all of the advantages of paper ballots except their being cheap can be matched by touch-screen voting, as long as the machine prints out a paper ballot for the voter to drop into the ballot box. The voter can review the ballot to make sure that the names the machine printed were the same as the names he voted for, and the machine-printed ballots can be made machine-readable. Yes, it would be possible to futz with the count, but the physical ballots would be right there, subject to spot-audit simply by running a random sample of precincts (selected after the first tally has been submitted) through a different counting machine located centrally, and subject to subsequent review in case of a recount. It would be very hard to alter a machine-printed ballot undetectably, and the rule should be that the ballot counts regardless of any stray marks, so every vote cast would count.
I have been told — I don’t know how reliably — that one voting-machine vendor actually offered such a machine, but didn’t make many sales, and that one of the big three vendors bought up the company and discontinued the product line. If that’s true, the patent covering that technology looks like a good candidate for taking by eminent domain and placing in the public domain, so that multiple companies could compete to produce touch-screen paper-ballot systems.
This is a case where the Democratic fundraisers (such as Steny Hoyer) have to be told that no amount of money the voting-machine companies could give deserves any weight at all compared to the other interests at stake here. To solve that problem more generally, we need to fix campaign finance, but that’s a topic for another post.