Helping America Vote: After More Than 200 Years of Voting, the United States Is about to Make a Massive Investment in the Neglected Elections Infrastructure. the Feds Have Made a Down Payment, but Will All the Money Be There?

Article excerpt

Every vote counts.

Nobody has to remind Wyoming Representative Liz Gentile of that. When the votes were tallied in her race for Wyoming House District 36 last fall, the Associated Press reported that she lost--by just one vote.

When she called the courthouse to confirm, she was thrilled to learn that she had, in fact, won by one vote. "I always said to people, your vote does count," says Gentile.

The story, of course, didn't end there. First, there was the inevitable recount that gave her two more votes. Then county elections officials discovered "voting irregularities." Thirteen people were given the wrong ballot and shouldn't have voted for District 36 representative. With the margin of victory being only three votes and no way to determine who the 13 incorrect voters had chosen, the state canvassing board ordered a new election. This time Gentile won by a more convincing 323-vote margin.

"In a way, I'm glad it was so close because it let people know that every vote really does matter," she says.

Murky elections are nothing new, and although the election for Wyoming House District 36 was not as high profile as the 2000 presidential election, both reveal a pressing need for a major restructuring of the way elections are administered. From outdated voting equipment to a chronic shortage of qualified election workers, the infrastructure has been crumbling from a lack of attention and funding.

Many states started to identify critical areas for improving the process after the 2000 election. More than half appointed a special task force or committee to examine every aspect of elections. Numerous national organizations, including the National conference of State Legislatures, contributed to the debate by offering recommendations on how to improve the process.

MAJOR REFORM FROM WASHINGTON

A few states, including Florida, Georgia and Maryland, enacted sweeping reforms in 2001 and 2002, complete with major cash infusions. Others pursued low cost fixes like clarifying voter intent and recount procedures. Most states, however, were holding back and waiting for a big investment in elections by the federal government. Would Congress follow through on its rhetoric and enact meaningful reform backed up with desperately needed federal dollars?

True to its word, congress passed landmark election reform with broad bipartisan support just three weeks before the 2002 general election. The 161-page law addresses most, if not all, of the problems that led to the 2000 Florida debacle. And it authorizes more than $3.8 billion in federal money (only partially appropriated) to shore up the election process and infrastructure.

"The administration of elections is primarily a state and local responsibility," President Bush said when he signed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) last October. "The federal government will help state and local officials conduct elections that have the confidence of all Americans."

Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, a key sponsor of the legislation, called it a move forward with "real reform and real solutions that will ensure America's voting system is the best in the world."

The law requires states to reform numerous aspects of the way elections are run. Of course, some of the updates are extremely costly, so a big question remains whether Congress will fully appropriate the promised $3.8 billion and when?

"This must not turn into another unfunded mandate from Washington," says New Mexico House Elections Committee Chair Representative Ed Sandoval. "The federal money appropriated in February is a great start, but states like New Mexico are counting on Congress to make good on its promise."

PAYING FOR REFORM

Full funding is far from assured despite a promising up-front investment from Congress in February. Just when states were starting to get nervous, Congress made a substantial down payment with the FY 2003 omnibus budget bill. …