Fixing our flawed election system

The following thoughts come from Val Ramos, a member of the Campaign’s Organizing Committee, and a staff member at Everyday Democracy. In this guest post, Val shares his reactions to the election and Peter Hardie’s post-election entry from last week. Read on and enjoy – Brandon

Some in the U.S. are quick to criticize the government of Venezuela for any number of reasons, starting, of course, with its President, Hugo Chavez.

However, by some accounts (including former President Jimmy Carter’s), Venezuela has one of the best election systems in the world. On Election Day, Venezuelans use a fully automated touch-screen voting system that uses thumbprint recognition technology. It also provides for a “paper trail” as it prints off a receipt to confirm voters’ candidate choices. (Parenthetically, for sure some here in the U.S. might find it offensive to have their thumb prints taken!). There are also other mechanisms and procedures that make voting easy and reliable (yes, there are reliable elections in Venezuela even if some might not agree with who wins them!).

How can some here in the U.S. criticize Venezuela for not being “democratic” when we are guilty of violating one of the most important principles of democracy–a person’s right to vote–and a right guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States. Indeed, in his program GPS (Global Public Square) this past weekend, host Fareed Zakaria noted that Venezuela and Australia have better, more efficient and yet reliable national election systems in place than does the United States.

For American citizens to have to wait 6 or 7 hours in line to vote because an election or government official has cut down on early voting hours or to have to vote with an absentee ballot that adds to the volume of ballots that have to be hand-counted is an embarrassment to our nation’s democracy. Furthermore, the fact that most of these problems amount to voter suppression impacting people of color and the elderly the most also brings into question our commitment as a nation to upholding the guarantees and protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

For federal elections, there should be a national electoral commission (maybe the Federal Election Commission with new directives from Congress) that oversees mid-term Congressional and Presidential elections. True this would pose some challenges. For one thing, states are responsible for administering elections (both national and state). For that and other reasons, different states use different types of voting technologies–some use optical scanners (using mark-sense forms) or touch-screen systems (DREs), and a few other states or counties may still use punch-cards, lever voting machines, and even paper ballots and ballot boxes. The variety of voting systems, therefore, pose one of the major challenges.There are over 10,000 electoral jurisdictions and finding a way to administer elections in a consistent and reliable manner is no easy task. Indeed, some states allow for ballot propositions which make the ballots long and time-consuming to fill-out. How to reconcile these is not easy, but such an effort will require creative thinking that our best minds can bring to the task.

We are perhaps the most technologically advanced nation in the world; let’s use that advantage to develop the best national election system in the world, one that does not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, age, socio-economic status, geography, etc. There have been great advancements made in online technology, so much so that more and more people are making bank transactions involving significant amounts of money using secure online services. Might a Federal Elections Commission perhaps develop a secure, reliable and confidential system that allows for online voting? Why not take a look at what Venezuela is using and developing something similar? MIT and the California Institute of Technology as well as some of the major information technology companies, including Dell and Microsoft, have begun to explore development of online voting technology. Why not work with these companies and universities to devise a system we can rely on and be proud of?

I was proud to hear President Obama say “we have to fix that.” Perhaps he was speaking to our Congress! Congress is aware of the challenges and flaws in our federal election system. In March of 2001, the Congressional Research Service published a report entitled “Voting Technologies in the United States: Overview and Issues for Congress” (PDF) which examines these challenges and offers some good recommendations.

I agree with Peter’s blog post. It is time for us to “fix that…” meaning our flawed federal elections system!

(Image from Ted Weinstein, via SFist)

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