The Right Kind of Election Reform


Real Election Reform Supports Real Elections

The only election reform voting rights advocates should lobby for is that which will protect real elections by ensuring what Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting calls "the essential public processes":

  • Who can vote (the public "voters list")
  • Who did vote (the public polling place roster)
  • Whether the votes cast were the same ones that were counted (public chain of custody)
  • Whether the counting was accurate (public counting)

To this end, election reform efforts must have a laser-sharp focus. The legislation itself must be clearly written and very simple, just like the U.S. Constitution!


The Right Kind of Election Reform

By Nancy Tobi

What Do We Need from Election Reform?

In May 2006 when I was invited to speak at the "Cleaning up our Statehouses" Conference sponsored by the Progressive State Network, I spoke about the role that community and local involvement play in building our political structures. I began by telling about Democracy for New Hampshire, a statewide grassroots organization that I helped to found in the early days of 2004.

The sentiments I held then still hold true for me now and I include some of the words I spoke at that conference in this piece.

Organizations like Election Defense Alliance and Democracy for New Hampshire are true grassroots organizations. We are 100% volunteer-powered sustained by small donor funding. As a people-powered organization, we are intensely and directly connected to community needs and values.

In New Hampshire, we know a lot about the importance of community and community-based political engagement. We have the largest citizen legislature in the nation, our elected representatives are eminently accessible, in many of our towns we debate community and political decisions in open town meetings, and in 45% of our polling places we count our ballots by hand with community members and volunteers pitching in to keep the count honest.

Looking at electoral reform, we face three challenges directly related to this question of community-based politics:

1. How do we prevent a lot of hard work at the state and local levels from being swept away by federal mandates?

2. How do we bring more on-the-ground stakeholders into the process to reach solutions that really work?

3. What is the intersection between clean and honest elections and citizen participation in the process?

America finds itself today in an electoral crisis. Faith and trust in our voting systems have eroded to the point where the question of campaign funding almost becomes irrelevant. Indisputable testing and evidence have proven that the privatized computer-based systems controlling more than 90-95% of the nation's electoral outcomes are easily hack-able. Given this situation, it may not even matter how much money one does or doesn't spend on a campaign, if the outcome can be systematically altered.

This state of affairs, combined with the role played by money in our political system, is possibly the greatest threat ever posed to our democratic processes and therefore to the existence of the AmericanRepublic itself.

How did we reach this point, and what does it have to do with this notion of community?

Over the past thirty five years a series of national election reform legislation has progressively shifted power from community, we-the-people-based politics, to more centralized and questionable influences.

The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 created the Federal Election Commission, which pre-empted states rights in the area of campaign funding. It also precipitated a 1976 Supreme Court ruling equating money with free speech, bringing a whole new twist to the notion of centralized power in the hands of the moneyed. (Buckley v. Valeo) Since this ruling, virtually every political decision is saturated with the influence of money.

With each successive election "reform" instituted at the national level, the corrupting influence of money led to ever-increasing centralization of power and control.

  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 instituted a uniform system of voter registration controlled by the federal government. This has resulted in a bureaucratic morass riddled with corruption, and is the source of widespread voter suppression.
  • The 2002 Help America Vote Act continued the trend of centralized power with its creation of the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), an executive commission of four presidential appointees with ever-increasing control over our nation's elections. The EAC's power is rooted in part by its oversight of the distribution of 3.8 billion taxpayer dollars to replace faulty voting equipment throughout the country. This has resulted in today's computerized voting crisis described earlier.
  • Proposed legislation at the national level, such as the "Voter Confidence Act" sponsored by Democratic New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt (aka "The Holt Bill") would cement the corrupting influence of centralized power at the expense of state's rights, by strengthening the EAC even further.

If we are to save American democracy, everything we do needs to incorporate the value of community and give deference and voice to the power of we-the-people. As a true grassroots organization, DFNH provides a pathway to community-based political connection. Our focus on state and local issues appropriately keeps the center of power with the people whose lives are affected by political decisions, and helps to maintain the checks and balances etched into the DNA of American democracy.

American democracy depends on a system of decentralized power. Cleaning up our statehouses depends on local control. Community political engagement does not require a rural New England environment, or even an organization like DFNH.

Everybody in every place intuitively and innately longs for community attachment. When parents hold their school boards accountable, when teenagers unite to demand a community meeting place, when neighborhood crime-watch coalitions are formed, when all people have equal access to influence their elected representatives, only then can we attain the necessary elements of transparency, accountability, and checks and balances that sustain and nourish our cherished democracy.

What Kind of Election Reform Should We Fight For?

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election a stunned American populace witnessed the brazen insider violation of every essential process in a "real" election. The insiders perpetrating these crimes included e-voting industrialists, election officials, the Supreme Court and the Congress. In response a new election reform movement was borne. Since then the movement has sought and lobbied for legislative reforms. But these reforms both proposed and - in the case of the "Help America Vote Act", enacted - have almost universally promised to protect and expand rather than eliminate fraudulent election systems.

Why would the election reform movement and its leaders get behind such harmful legislation? It's simple. They have forgotten, or are simply afraid, to ask for what is really needed.

As long as today's election reformers focus on technology or industry reforms ("better" technology, industry standards, spot checks on machines, and the like) they miss the real target: public elections. This error has caused the movement and its leaders to spin its wheels; at best today's election reformers are stuck and at worst they are expanding the damage.

Real Election Reform Supports Real Elections

The only election reform voting rights advocates should lobby for is that which will protect real elections by ensuring what Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting calls "the essential public processes":

  • Who can vote (the public "voters list")
  • Who did vote (the public polling place roster)
  • Whether the votes cast were the same ones that were counted (public chain of custody)
  • Whether the counting was accurate (public counting)

To this end, election reform efforts must have a laser-sharp focus. The legislation itself must be clearly written and very simple, just like the U.S. Constitution! Here are some initial guidelines to ensure that election reform legislation asks for the right thing:

  • It must be rider-less; it can not contain any tacked on riders that can dilute or subvert its intention.
  • It must be written in plain and concise English.
  • It must address a single issue in any given bill to avoid being diluted or subverted through complexities with intended or unintended consequences.
  • It must enforce public vs. concealed vote counting.
  • It must enforce public vs. privatized elections.
  • It must enforce public vs. concealed election records.
  • It must enforce rules governing conflict of interest for all election officials at all levels of government.
  • It must enforce voter access to the voting system.
  • It must enforce ballot access for "third" parties.
  • It must enforce ballot simplification to enable public hand counts and understandable ballots and election results.

In March 2010 the Town of Lyndeborough, New Hampshire passed a very simple little law that demonstrates these principles. The town law focused on the right to public vote counts and public elections. In the Town Meeting, Lyndeborough citizens overwhelmingly voted "Aye" to the following question:

Shall the Town of Lyndeborough prohibit vote counting concealed from the human eye by method of computers or otherwise, and require that all methods used for sorting and counting the votes in an election be publicly observable for full citizen oversight of the entire voting system (with the exception of the voter's casting of the secret ballot)?

In stark contrast to this piece of election reform, look at the focus of the following law passed by the New Hampshire House of Representatives. This bill was endorsed and supported by election reform activists serving in the NH House:

This bill requires the secretary of state to establish an electronic ballot counting device advisory committee. The committee shall facilitate the design of an electronic ballot counting device for use at future elections in New Hampshire. The committee shall also research the upgrades that are available for voting machines currently used in New Hampshire and recommend which upgrades should be required for the continued use of the machines by cities and towns.

This NH legislation passed by the NH House and Senate did nothing more than establish an evoting committee designed to cement into place the unconstitutional and fraud-friendly evoting system. It was written under the direction of the NH Secretary of State, with Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan's consultation and advice, to replace the previous language of the bill which in fact called for transparent vote counting processes.

The bill passed because even those state legislators who believed there was a real problem with the evoting machines used in the state were afraid to ask for what was really needed.

It's time for election reformers to ask for, or really to demand, what is really needed for our nation. It's not a popular stance, and it may take a long time, but the only way out of this mess.

A community member from Wilton, NH speaking about the public hand count process used to count the town's votes, hit the nail on the head when he summed it up like this:

"It may take longer, but it's right."