The nation’s election administrators say it’s time to restructure elections to reflect the way Americans live, scrapping neighborhood precincts and Election Day for large, customer-oriented “vote centers” where people could cast ballots over a period of weeks.
In a new, sweeping report, state and local officials focus much of their attention on voters and poll workers rather than voting machines — the subject of so much debate ever since the 2000 presidential stalemate in Florida.
“We are looking forward, we are looking at ways to make elections better,” said Dawn Williams, who oversees voting in Marshall County, Iowa. She co-chaired a task force of officials and former officials from 15 states that was set up by the Houston-based Election Center.
So-called “universal vote centers,” introduced two years ago on a limited basis in Colorado, could end some of the biggest flaws in the way Americans vote if widely implemented, administrators said.
Such centers eliminate confusion over where to vote, since everyone in a county can vote at any center; reduce lines by allowing for more equipment and staff at fewer locations; and prevent mistakes by better marshaling well-trained election officials along with day workers.
“It addresses what happened in Florida in 2000 better than the (federal) Help America Vote Act” — the law Congress passed to fix elections three years ago, said Larimer County (Colorado) Clerk Scott Doyle, who came up with the idea. “It’s the way America lives. Why shouldn’t America vote that way?”
‘Save millions of dollars’
Doyle sought and won a change in state law that allowed him to replace 143 precincts with 20 vote centers. Larger facilities — hotel ballrooms and state fairgrounds — allow easier access and parking for voters, and more efficient concentration of resources for administrators.
“There’s an opportunity here to better meet our voters’ needs and save millions of dollars,” Doyle said. With vote centers, the county can save several hundred thousand dollars by buying fewer handicapped-accessible voting machines, since the new federal law requires one at each polling location, he said.
The report, to be officially released Tuesday, also backs a growing trend toward voting over days and weeks, rather than just Election Day.
At least 30 states have already broadened their balloting rules, expanding absentee voting to “no excuse” voting — so anyone who wants to vote absentee is allowed. In some places, residents can also vote early, in person, as much as a month ahead of Election Day.
“We’ve got to look at how we make this better for voters at all points. Don’t try to fix the symptoms but say, ‘What is causing the problem and how do we fix them?”’ said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which trains election officials.
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“Here are some concepts. They’re not revolutionary concepts, they’re evolutionary,” Lewis said.
The report also urges state legislators to consider an “independently verifiable” record of each voter’s ballot from ATM-style touchscreen voting machines that could be electronic, video or some other form — pointedly downplaying a widespread push for paper receipts from touchscreens.
Elections administrators have taken a fair share of blame for the nation’s electoral troubles in recent years.
Many critics say local and state officials have been complacent or worse about threats to the electoral system, including worries that people seeking to manipulate elections could hack into computerized machines and rig the results.
The faults in the machines are real and can’t be ignored, said Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins University computer science professor. Election officials should heed the computer science community’s warnings, he said.
The Election Center has come in for criticism after reports that the nonprofit, nonpartisan group accepts contributions from voting machine manufacturers. Two members of the task force are former local election administrators who’ve formed their own election-related businesses.
The task force also suggested that states:
- Prohibit companies that register new voters from getting paid by the number of registrants and punish those that misuse the process.
- Assist felons by providing them with a faster way to regain voting rights, where allowed, and better election information.
- Share voter registration information between states to avoid duplication and safeguard against fraud.
The report is one of several continuing efforts to improve elections as disputes continue over 2004 results.
Most prominent among those was the 129-vote victory of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who won office on the third count of the votes. A state judge upheld her victory Monday.
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