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Originally published Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 6:01 AM

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Efforts to fix voting flaws fall victim to politics

The country's voting systems remain as deeply flawed as ever. But apart from the high-profile fights, there are worse problems with voter registration, ballot design, absentee voting and electoral administration.

The New York Times

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Twelve years after a too-close-to-call presidential contest imploded in a hail of Florida punch-card ballots and a bitter 5-4 Supreme Court ruling for George W. Bush, the country's voting systems remain as deeply flawed as ever, with any prospect of fixing them mired in increasing levels of partisanship.

The most recent high-profile fights have been about voter identification requirements and whether they are aimed at stopping fraud or keeping minority group members and the poor from voting. But there are worse problems with voter registration, ballot design, absentee voting and electoral administration.

In Ohio, the recommendations of a bipartisan commission on ways to reduce the large number of provisional ballots and long lines at polling stations in 2008 have come to naught after a Republican takeover of both houses of the legislature in 2010. In New York, a redesign of ballots that had been widely considered hard to read and understand was passed by the state Assembly this year. But a partisan dispute in the state Senate led to paralysis.

And states have consistently failed to fix a wide range of electoral flaws identified by a bipartisan commission led by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III in 2005. In Florida, for example, the commission found 140,000 voters who had also registered in four other states.

The panel suggested changes including impartial election administration, better voter-list maintenance, uniform photo ID requirements and paper trails for electronic voting machines. But Republicans in some states liked the ideas that fit their notion of what was wrong — potential for fraud. And Democrats preferred others — increasing voter participation. Little was done.

"Incredibly polarized"

"This has all become incredibly politicized in recent years," noted Daniel Tokaji, an election law professor at Ohio State University. "If you go back in our history, you can find voter registration rules used to exclude blacks or immigrants from voting. But since 2000 it seems to have gotten worse. Both parties have realized that election administration rules can make the difference between victory and defeat in a close election. And unlike virtually every other country in the world, our systems are administered by partisan officials elected as candidates of their parties."

Robert A. Pastor, co-director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management at American University, who was executive director of the Carter-Baker commission, said the voter identification fights of recent months pale when compared with some of these other issues, especially voter registration. Only half of eligible voters in the country are registered and few of them lack photo IDs, he said.

"The proponents of voter ID are adamant that it is essential to stop electoral fraud even though there is hardly any evidence of voter impersonation, and the opponents are sure that it will lead to voter suppression even though they haven't been able — until Pennsylvania — to point to a single instance where a voter could not vote because of a lack of ID," he said. "... The problem remains registration — not IDs — in reducing voting participation. To quote Jorge Luis Borges on the Falklands war, 'It's a fight between two bald men over a comb.' "

13,000 voter lists in U.S.

But the registration issue is acute. Nearly every other advanced country maintains a national voter roll. In this country, which eschews a national identity card, there are 13,000 separate rolls maintained by counties, towns and municipalities. David Becker, director of election initiatives at Pew Charitable Trusts, said his group's research shows that 2.2 million votes were lost in 2008 as a result of voter-registration difficulties.

Pew has been working with some states to promote online voter registration and sharing of lists among government agencies for that purpose. Becker said that this year a number of states working with his group — Colorado, Oregon, Maryland, Utah and Virginia, among others — are going to reach out by mail for the first time to eligible but unregistered voters.

"Republicans are very much in favor of cleaning up and maintaining voter lists and Democrats want to make sure access is available, and we believe there are tools that address both," he said.

One set of recommendations was released Tuesday by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. Called "Better Designs, Better Elections," the report estimates that in the 2008 and 2010 general elections combined, as many as 400,000 people had absentee or provisional ballots rejected because they made technical mistakes on the forms or the envelopes. It adds that the loss appears to be greatest among low-income and minority groups as well as among the elderly and disabled.

"Room for chicanery"

Lawrence Norden, a co-author of the study and deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, said that in Texas, machines in 50 counties are set up so that if a voter marks a straight party option and also pulls the levers for the candidates, that vote gets annulled. Research has shown that blacks and Latinos tend to do this more often than others, leading Democrats there to try to change the design but to little avail.

Looking broadly at such design flaws, Norden said he doubted that they were set up to suppress voting and were most likely the result of error. But because of mutual suspicion between the parties, they have been hard to fix.

Richard L. Hasen, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who has just published a book, "The Voting Wars," said that each party has found that pushing electoral reform that suits it "is a great way to motivate its base." He has also studied court decisions on voting disputes and found a high percentage of them break down along party lines — judges appointed by Democrats back their policies, and those appointed by Republicans back theirs. Broadly, he believes, the risk of another debacle like the 2000 election is high.

"Elections are not well funded in this country, and the people running them are not professionals," he said. "There are different rules in every district. When there is a razor-thin election — and we may have one in November — there is room for chicanery."

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