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Ventura County Perspective

Voting Problems Require a First-Rate Solution

February 04, 2001|BRAD SHERMAN | Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) represents portions of the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County

In the final days of the 106th Congress, as the American public dealt with the consequences of the closest presidential election in American history, several bills were introduced that provide for at least a study of what can be done to improve our vote tabulation system.

Elections are the most important functions of a democracy, and making sure that elections are run fairly and properly is one of the most important issues the new Congress will face.

Thirty-one percent of this country, including Los Angeles and Ventura counties, uses the punch card system, which we became all too aware of in Florida.

One out of every 66 persons voting in Florida in a county using punch cards had no vote registered for president, the so-called undervote.

You might think that one out of every 66 Floridians did not care to vote for president. But in adjoining counties where optical scanners were used, only one out of every 250 voters chose to skip voting for president.

So we see that, with accurate tabulation using the best machines available, 249 out of 250 voters cast a ballot for president.

The tabulating machines used in punch card counties are ignoring almost 1% of the votes cast. This needs to be changed, and we need to do more than just place a Band-Aid over the problem.

Some would suggest that instead of making a huge investment in this most important democratic procedure, we should conduct a few pilot programs to improve a few counties. This is the Band-Aid that America needs to avoid.

That approach would cost $50 million to $70 million and would provide a few fancy machines in a few counties.

But 31% of all Americans use this punch card system, and 1% of that 31% are being disenfranchised.

This is simply unacceptable.

The vote tabulation problem the country faces is too large for us to address piecemeal. There are 180,000 precincts in this country, and each one has half a dozen or more voting booths with tabulation devices. America needs to be more ambitious in its efforts to resolve this issue. We should provide at least $1 billion, real money for a real problem. This money should be given to counties and local jurisdictions in the form of grants to cover 50% to 80% of the cost of new vote tabulation and vote casting machinery as well as the cost of implementing the systems and training employees.

In addition to setting aside the money for improvements, Congress should give the Federal Election Commission the responsibility of determining which vote tabulation systems would be best for large, mid-size and small counties. The commission could list three to six systems that would do an excellent job for large counties, and prepare similar lists for medium and small counties.

The federal government should offer each county 50% of the cost of buying and implementing a system; poor counties should get 80%.

We spend billions every year to promote democracy abroad. Surely these efforts would be taken more seriously if we responded effectively to the embarrassing flaws in our own democracy.

In the last days of the 106th Congress, I joined with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) to introduce the 21st Century Electoral Reform Act, but the session ended before action could be taken. This bill was similar to what I have described. I am working with these same colleagues to draft another bill, which we hope to introduce early next month.

So much blood and treasure have been spent to bequeath a democracy to future generations. We should not squander our democratic system or let it decay.

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