The need for election reform

9/26/2005

"Elections are the heart of democracy. They are the instrument for the people to choose leaders and hold them accountable. At the same time, elections are a core public function upon which all other government responsibilities depend. If elections are defective, the entire democratic system is at risk."

So begins the report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform, co-chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III.

Seldom has the urgent case for revamping our nation's electoral machinery been stated any more eloquently or clearly.

The bipartisan report - Mr. Carter is, of course, a Democrat, while Mr. Baker has served under three Republican presidents - is an attempt to put the imprimatur of good government rather than politics on election reform after consecutive presidential elections in which public confidence has been shaken.

"Americans are losing confidence in the fairness of elections, and while we do not face a crisis today, we need to address the problems of our electoral system," the two assert, with considerable understatement.

What Mr. Carter and Mr. Baker propose is to iron out defects in the way votes are cast and counted across the country by taking control away from politicians and placing the bulk of reliance for election administration on nonpartisan professionals.

"We cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of state responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns," the report says.

That is a direct reference to both the 2000 and 2004 elections, in which Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, respectively, were co-chairmen of President Bush's re-election campaign in their states.

It's also tacit support for an issue on Ohio's Nov. 8 ballot that, if approved by voters, would put election administration in the hands of an appointed state board of elections instead of the secretary of state.

The Carter/Baker report is the product of a 21-member commission that spent five months developing a consensus on what steps should be taken to shore up public confidence in the election process.

Among the panel's other recommendations are a universal voter registration system governed by the states, rather than local jurisdictions, with a mechanism to prevent voters from registering in more than one state; a voter-verifiable paper trail for electronic voting devices, and the independent testing of voting systems and computer code to clear up questions about possible hacking.

Not all the suggestions should be adopted. A proposal to require a uniform photo identification card to vote almost certainly would discourage large numbers of elderly, poor, and minority voters from casting ballots.

In the main, however, the panel has set down a comprehensive blueprint for the proper administration of elections. Now begins the task of persuading Congress and state election officials from Maine to California and Florida to Washington to take this compelling report to heart and put its best recommendations into practice.