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The 111th Congress Adds Election Reform to the Agenda

by Ceridwen Cherry // Published June 10, 2009
This morning I had the pleasure of watching the House Committee on Administration report three important election reform bills to the floor of the House. The interest in election issues, particularly from Rep. Susan Davis the sponsor of all three bills, is especially encouraging and is hopefully a sign that the 111th Congress will give election reform priority in its agenda.

HR2510 the "Absentee Ballot Track, Receive and Confirm Act" which Davis nicknamed the "Track Act" seeks to improve tracking of absentee ballots in elections for Federal office. Voters will be able to check online whether their ballot was received, whether their vote was counted and if it was not why their ballot was rejected. The cost of implementing this system will be reimbursed to states by the federal government. In addition to assisting absentee voters, HR2510 will also help to reduce the workload of election officials who often handle hundreds of calls a day from absentee voters wanting to know the status of their ballot. A streamlined online system will reduce the number of calls and free up officials to process registrations and ballots faster-potentially reducing the turnaround time for the absentee ballot process.

This bill is particularly important for military and overseas voters who have an especially difficult time voting. Often the turnaround time to request an absentee ballot, receive it by mail, vote and return it by mail is so long-particularly from remote international locations and war zones where it may take over 60 days-that overseas voters are effectively disenfranchised. As someone who has had my absentee ballot reach me overseas the day after the election I know how frustrating this process can be. Statistics on the participation of overseas voters suggest there is significant cause for alarm-the Congressional Research Service found that one in four ballots from overseas military voters was not counted in the 2008 election and Democrats Abroad estimated that one in five overseas voters was unable to return their ballot on time. Neither of these figures take into account those voters who did not even try to vote due to the bureaucratic and logistical hurdles that accompany voting from abroad.

While the Track Act will not reduce the time the absentee ballot process takes it will allow voters to track their ballots online and to follow up if their vote has not been received. For international and military voters the ability to access ballot information online and regardless of time zone is a significant improvement. Thus the Track Act is an important step in the right direction towards improving the absentee process and it is a promising sign that it was unanimously reported out of Committee. However, more significant reforms to the absentee process are clearly needed.

One such reform would be to allow overseas voters and out-of-state military voters to use ranked absentee ballots so as to allow them to participate in elections that have more than one round of voting (ie run-offs) and where there will not be adequate time for a second absentee ballot to be received and returned. These voters receive two ballots-- a standard absentee ballot for the first election and a ranked choice ballot to be used in the event of a second election. Both ballots are completed and returned and the ranked ballot is only used in the case of a runoff election. The ranked "instant runoff" ballot system has already been adopted for Federal elections in Arkansas, Louisiana and South Carolina- all states with significant out-of-state military populations. Congress should consider expanding this method to all states so as to ensure that military and overseas voters are able to fully participate in the democratic process. Furthermore, Congress should mandate a minimum number of days before the election by which time absentee ballots must be mailed. Currently many states mail ballots as little as 30 days before the date on which they must be returned making it almost impossible for overseas and deployed military voters to return them on time. Mandating a minimum of 45 days-although 60 would be ideal-would help to alleviate this problem.

The second bill reported out of committee today HR1604 the "Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act of 2009" would allow all eligible voters to vote by mail in Federal elections. Essentially this bill seeks to introduce "no-excuse" absentee voting in those states that do not already allow it. FairVote has no position on this legislation, but supports the goal of universal access to participation and applauds the general goal of establishing clear federal standards in elections. Given that the US insists on holding Federal elections on Tuesdays-a day when the majority of the population faces conflicts with work or school-the ability to vote by mail if unable to reach a polling place on election day is one way to ensure access to elections. Proponents also argue that voting by mail allows voters more time to consider their choices, which is particularly important as ballots become more complicated and include a greater number of complex initiative and referendum questions. Additionally voting by mail or early voting may help to alleviate long lines at the polls on Election Day.

While several members of the Committee opposed the bill on the grounds that it would open up the system to voter fraud and referred repeatedly to the arrest of two individuals in Atlantic City, NJ this week for submitting fraudulent absentee ballots, there is actually little evidence of fraud with absentee balloting given how much it is now used in American elections. Ultimately a compromise amendment requiring that election officials maintain on record a voter's signature before they mail an absentee ballot and verify the signature before the returned ballot is accepted was passed. This seems like a reasonable way to counter voter fraud without limiting access.

The third bill considered before the Committee was HR 512 the "Federal Election Integrity Act of 2009" which would ban chief State election administration officials from serving on the political campaigns of Federal candidates whose elections they will oversee or receiving political contributions on behalf of these candidates. Considering the partisan nature of many election officials-the most obvious case being Katherine Harris and the 2000 debacle in Florida-requiring that election officials commanded to carry out a non-partisan job in a non-partisan way seems to me to be nothing but common sense. Yet the bill will still likely face significant opposition on the floor of House.

While all three proposals have a long way to go before they become law, the support they received in Committee today suggests an increased interest in election issues in the 111th Congress. My personal opinion is that all three bills deserve bipartisan support when they are taken up on the House floor.