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Voting for reform

September 21, 2005

IF IT IS TRUE, as former President Jimmy Carter said, that Americans have lost faith in their voting system, then he and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III have lost a significant opportunity to help them restore it. A bipartisan commission led by Carter and Baker released a report Monday that proposes many reasonable ways to make voting a smoother and more trustworthy process -- but stops far short of addressing what really keeps people from the polls.

For that, the report would have to have recommended abolishing the Electoral College, the cornerstone of a winner-take-all system that leads presidential candidates to lavish their attention on a few key states. It might also have at least alluded to reforms of campaign finance laws and conflict-of-interest rules for elected officials, especially because many voters see politics as a parade of special-interest pandering in which their interests seldom count for much.

Such reforms would take tremendous political will. But that is lacking these days, so the commission limited itself to pragmatic, incremental reforms designed to boost public faith in the ballot system. With some adjustments, many of these should be adopted.

One recommendation that should become reality is a rescheduling of the presidential primaries. The report suggests holding them on a mostly regional basis and rotating the first regional primary regularly. This system would put an end to the electoral arms race in which states vie for the earliest possible primary. It's also smart to encourage mobile registration vans and electronic voting machines that produce a paper trail that can be audited. Better tracking of voters who move is another wise idea.

Civil rights advocates, though, complain about the commission's recommendation that authorities require photo ID to vote in order to cut down on voter fraud. Usually photo ID means a driver's license, but the report recommends that states provide free cards to non-drivers. The idea's critics point out, rightly, that African Americans and the elderly are less likely to drive or have the documents to prove citizenship, and they say these groups would be disenfranchised.

But most everyone, excepting Hurricane Katrina victims, should be able to get a birth certificate easily. And there will be plenty of get-out-the-vote workers to help them with the process. The photo ID can also be viewed as a protection for voters because it sets a single standard for voting eligibility and reduces local discretion to question or intimidate voters.

The key is to not create excessive demands for proof of citizenship and for the federal government to insist that the cards be free. That last item might sound foolishly obvious, but the state of Georgia recently won U.S. Justice Department approval to charge voters a fee for a five-year card. (The fee, which varies and which the state says will be waived for the poor, is being challenged in court.)

There should be no financial impediment to the most basic democratic right. That such an un-American idea could win the approval of a state legislature and be signed by a governor shows better than anything why so many people consider politics, and voting, such a waste of time.

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