Election reform proposals

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The controversies over long voting lines, malfunctioning voting machines, deceptive practices and voter suppression in the 2008 election demonstrate the need for election reform.

2008 Election Day problems

There were many problems that occurred on Election Day 2008.

Long lines

In the post-election report Voting in 2008: Lessons Learned[1] Common Cause's Tova Wang notes,

"While in many precincts, voting took only a matter of minutes, in Detroit, some had to wait in line for five hours. In the St. Louis area it was six hours. In Chesapeake, VA, seven. Voters in Georgia and Florida faced unacceptably long wait times during early voting. While the commitment of so many to wait no matter how long it took was inspiring, some voters inevitably could not wait that long -- they worked for hourly wages, couldn't get that much time off or had child care responsibilities."

Voting machine problems

There were problems with voting machines across the country. An analysis by Our Vote Live[2] found that,

"Somewhere close to 85-90% of all voting equipment incident reports from the OVL database are very simple and report some combination of: broken equipment, long lines, and/or emergency ballots being handed out and/or auxiliary bins on optical scan systems being used (many optical scan systems have a bin incorporated into the design of the machine where ballots can be placed in the event the system ceases to function or the power remains out for hours). If we can do anything to improve the experience of the average voter facing a machine problem, it should be reduce the amount of time they spend in line."

Deceptive practices

Common Cause notes[1],

"In the past, this had usually taken the form of flyers and mailings, but this year, as we predicted in our deceptive practices report, such activities went online as well. We heard robocalls spreading false information about voting, and we saw emails and text messages in Virginia, Missouri, Florida and at least five other states doing the same. Most of these emails said that given the high turnout expected, Republicans were to vote on Tuesday, Democrats on Wednesday."

As noted in the article Voter suppression, the Election Protection Wiki tracked a widespread effort to send text messages to Democrats in several states, advising them to avoid the lines on Tuesday by voting on Wednesday. This happened in Missouri, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Idaho, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Virginia and other states. Voters in Missouri and other states reported receiving robo-calls with a similar message. In Florida, Democratic voters were also called and given a phone number that allegedly would allow them to vote by phone. Once they had "voted", they were told they did not need to go to the polls.

Registration purges

Common Cause notes[1],

"Issues around the voter registration process were the most controversial of this election year. Untold numbers of voters registered to vote but were not on the registration list when they came to vote and had to cast a provisional ballot. . . . In Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning insisted that the information on voters’ registration forms exactly match the information in state and federal databases ... This led to over 22,000 voters having their voter registration initially blocked. As of Election Day, some 10,000 of these voters had yet to take the extra, unnecessary step of resubmitting an ID and their vote was thus in jeopardy. Similarly, the GOP sued the secretary of state of Ohio demanding that 200,000 voters ... be flagged and likely forced to vote provisionally. The secretary of state in Georgia similarly flagged tens of thousands of voters and challenged the citizenship of thousands of eligible voters based on “mismatches.” In Colorado, the secretary of state rejected voter registration form for picayune technical omissions and was"

Voter caging and challenging

Common Cause notes[1],

"In Ohio, a state law that required election administrators to send out a mailing to all voters 60 days in advance of the election raised concerns that those pieces of mail that were returned as undeliverable would be used as a basis for challenges – a practice that had been utilized repeatedly over the last 40 years."


Election Day reforms

  • National Election Day holiday: Making Election Day a national holiday would free people from work, allowing more people to vote.
  • Extend voting period: Allowing people to vote over several days reduces the length of lines and other volume-related election problems.
  • Allow unlimited absentee voting: Allowing people to vote absentee even if they will not be out of town on Election Day also reduces the load on the polls. In practice, since there is no attempt to verify that an absentee voter is actually out of town on Election Day, this change in rules would probably have little effect.
  • Expand the role of international monitors: International monitors can serve as a check on election problems. International observation was largely rebuffed in previous years, but the Organization for Society and Cooperation in Europe observed the 2008 U.S. presidential elections.
  • Expand vote-by-mail: In Oregon and large parts of Washington State, most voting occurs on ballots that one may either mail or submit at a small number of fixed locations. Proponents of VBM, such as the Vote By Mail project, claim that VBM raises turnout. Opponents, such as Paul Gronke claim that Oregon had high turnout even before instituting VBM. There is also disagreement as to the vulnerability of VBM systems to election tampering. Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, along with co-sponsors Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)[3] and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), introduced legislation in 2006 and 2007 encouraging voting by mail. This federal legislation would provide grant money for states or localities to transition to VBM elections.

Registration reforms


Voter registration is the foundation on which our election structure is based. If voters aren't aware of their rights and obligations, if the laws are unclear, or if voter rolls aren't accurate, fewer voters make it to the polls and our elections suffer.

Voter registration has also been at the heart of one of the most heated controversies of the 2008 elections: Allegations of voter registration fraud against ACORN have resulted in criminal investigations, threats of violence, and widespread examination of the pay-per-registration system of enrolling new voters.

Many groups are working on voter registration reform, and 2009 and beyond will bring additional legislation. Some current proposals include:

  • General registration reforms: The Brennan Center for Justice has issued a set of proposals for improving our current voter registration system.
  • Universal or automatic voter registration: In which registration is triggered by life events (such as the voter's 18th birthday) and the burden is on the states to ensure complete voter rolls.
  • Other reform methods: Creation of a national voter database, registration as part of the US Census, and more.

To learn more, visit voter registration reform.

Voting machine reforms

As of November 2008[4], more than a dozen states have outlawed direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, while others have restricted their use to voters with disabilities. Still other states have mandated that DREs supply voter-verified paper audit trails, though these are often claimed to be problematic.

Many states require paper ballots but count them on optical scan machines. Proponents of full manual counts have called for an abolition of even these machines, claiming that they suffer from the same lack of transparency as DRE machines.

Some have called for all software used in voting machines to be open-source. Currently, voting software is proprietary, and demands to observe the software have often been denied on the grounds that proprietary trade secrets would be revealed.[5]

Recount reforms

Extending safe-harbor deadline for presidential elections

Many of the problems in the 2000 presidential election stemmed from the fact that the Constitution mandates that recounts for presidential election be completed by the "safe-harbor deadline" established by Congress, which is the fifth Tuesday after Election Day, but the recount could not be completed to a satisfactory degree by that point. Ned Foley[6] and Dan Tokaji[7] recommend extending the deadline by several weeks.

Election audit reforms

An audit is a recount of a subset of the ballots submitted. An audit should meet the following requirements:

  • criteria determined beforehand, including the threshold size of a discrepancy that triggers further action
  • randomly selected subset
  • sample size large enough to catch problems
  • performed in a different way from the initial vote (for instance, manual counting rather than optical scanning)

Mandatory election audits

In some states, election audits are mandatory in all circumstances, not only in the case of a close election. Kathy Dopp[8] has argued that the size of the audit should be inverse to the margin of victory because fixed-size audits are unreliable in a close election and inefficient in a landslide.

Election administration and pollworker reforms

Election administration reforms

Currently many state officials in charge of overseeing the election process are elected by party, raising potential conflicts of interest. In some cases, Secretaries of State responsible for general oversight have simultaneously served as campaign officials in the same campaigns they are charged with monitoring. To prevent this conflict and guarantee that elections will be conducted in the most non-partisan way possible, FairVote recommends the following three reforms[9]:

  1. Election officials cannot serve as state chairs of campaigns or candidates and clear restrictions should be in place regulating all involvement of election officials in political campaigns.
  2. Election officials must set electoral policies well in advance of an election.
  3. To avoid even the question of partisanship, election policies and procedures should be set by a committee of officials who are non-partisan and/or represent a wide-range of political beliefs.

Polling place reforms

Mandating sufficient voting machines

One potential reform is a standardized mandate for a minimum number of voting machines available in polling places, according to the number of voters expected. For example, in 2008 Virginia law required one voting machine for every 750 voters and there were long lines on Election Day. But Ohio's Secretary of State directed that there be one voting machine for every 150 voters, and there were no long lines.[10] The determination of the number of machines to be used should take into account multiple factors, among them:

  • the number of votes in previous elections of a similar type (e.g., use previous presidential elections to predict turnout for upcoming presidential election)
  • the number of votes in recent elections of different types (e.g., use previous primary to predict turnout for upcoming presidential election)
  • the number of existing registered voters
  • the number of newly registered voters
  • the failure rate of machines

Election law reforms

Combating deceptive practices

The 2007 Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, which would have established criminal penalties for spreading voter misinformation, increased to five years' imprisonment the penalty for intimidation of voters, and and required the Attorney General to establish a Voting Integrity Task Force to carry out the requirements of the Act, passed the House (H.R. 1281), where it was introduced by Rep. Rahm Emanuel (IL-5, D), but died in the Senate (S. 453), where it was introduced by Sen. Barack Obama (IL-D).

Felon disenfranchisement laws

In 2004, 5.3 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.[11] In addition, hundreds of thousands of eligible voters may be unaware of their rights due to incorrect information provided by state and local election officials.[12]

See also the "Felon Disenfranchisement" issue article

Structural reforms

Replacing the Electoral College

The argument has been made that the electoral college does a poor job of serving the country's democracy because it distributes votes unequally (favoring states with small populations) and causes voters who are not in battleground states to be ignored. The prime alternative to the Electoral College would be a national popular vote. It would be politically difficult to ratify a Constitutional amendment, since states favored by the status quo would probably block it. An alternative approach has been to attempt to pass a national popular vote compact, under which, once a critical number of states signed on, all signatory states would compel their electors to vote for the winner of the national popular vote. As of November 2008, four states have passed laws binding them to a national popular vote, while in four additional states, bills to this effect have passed both houses.[13]

Replacing single-vote, single-candidate voting systems

The traditional method of balloting in the United States involves voters casting a single vote for a single candidate. In general, the candidate receiving the greatest number of votes (the "first past the post") is the winner. This system may dissuade voters from choosing their favorite candidates in favor of selecting candidates who have a decent chance of winning in a single round. Alternatives include instant runoff voting, Condorcet voting, approval voting, and range voting. In these systems, a voter may choose multiple candidates for a single seat and assign them ranks or scores.[14]

Several areas in the U.S. have already put in place an instant runoff voting (IRV) system, with more under consideration for upcoming elections. The city of Minneapolis is currently facing a legal challenge against its plan to institute IRV for its 2009 municipal elections.[15]

Making voting compulsory

In Australia and several other countries, voting is compulsory, and those who fail to vote are fined. However, those who vote may submit a blank ballot. A high proportion of U.S. voters would oppose compulsory voting.[16]

Articles and resources

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Voting in 2008: Lessons Learned, a post-election report by Common Cause written by Tova Wang, Vice President for Research.
  2. Joseph Lorenzo Hall, "A Preliminary Analysis of OVL Voting Equipment Reports," Our Vote Live, Election Protection Coalition, November 12, 2008
  3. Senator Kerry on Vote By Mail
  4. See Verified Voting's "Verifier" Map, retrieved November 24, 2008.
  5. See Open Voting Consortium.
  6. Happy birthday, Bush v. Gore, December 12, 2006
  7. An Unsafe Harbor: Recounts, Contests, and the Electoral College
  8. "How Big Should an Election Audit Be?", dated January 17, 2007
  9. Nonpartisan Election Officials, FairVote 'Right to Vote' Initiative.
  10. The information is from Tova Andrea Wang, "Voting in 2008: Lessons Learned," Taking Note, Century Foundation, November 10, 2008.
  11. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (2006, Oxford University Press)
  12. Erika Wood and Rachel Bloom,De Facto Disenfranchisement, Brennan Center for Justice and ACLU, October, 2008.
  13. See National Popular Vote. Information retrieved November 24, 2008.
  14. See dKosopedia "Voting Systems" page, retrieved on November 24, 2008.
  15. Curtis Gilbert,Minneapolis goes to court over new voting style, Minneapolis Public Radio, December 11, 2008.
  16. Eric Weiner, "What If Voting Were Mandatory?" Slate, October 29, 2004

External resources

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, "A Preliminary Analysis of OVL Voting Equipment Reports," Our Vote Live, Election Protection Coalition, November 12, 2008.

External articles