Commentary: Reforming elections should be top priority

April 14, 2008

The intensity of the Democratic presidential contest is propelling expectations that Indiana primary voters will influence the selection of the Democratic presidential nominee.

The question is, will Indiana conduct a fair election?

Elections are the heart of democracy and the instrument for the people to choose leaders and hold them accountable. The validity of the elected depends upon the integrity of the voting process. If elections lack integrity, the entire democratic system is at risk. Since 2000, polls have consistently shown that people lack confidence that their votes would be counted properly. Since 2000, Indiana public officials have had more than one problem conducting elections.

To date, Indiana's efforts to ensure the integrity of the voting process have focused predominantly on ballot security at the potential expense of ballot access. Indiana did meet the compliance requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. This federal legislation sought to create and maintain statewide computerized voter lists and increase ballot access for the disabled and those whose names were missing from registration rolls.

Unfortunately, HAVA did not fully address issues of ballot security and ballot access. The Commission on Federal Election Reform, commonly known as the Carter Baker Commission, sought to build on the work of the Carter Ford Commission that proposed HAVA. Indiana and 26 other states focused on the recommendations for voter identification. The rush by state legislators for identification requirements has resulted in litigation for many reasons, but partly because identification requirements alone do not resolve public concerns of fair and accurate elections.

When lower courts have considered challenges to state law on the question of access, their decisions have been inconsistent. Indiana's law, enacted in 2005, was one of the first such laws in the country and the first to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an effort to determine if identification is a burdensome requirement, American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management surveyed voters in Indiana, Mississippi and Maryland, which are states where IDs are required, and found that only about 1 percent of registered voters lacked ID. However, the study had a small sample size and, therefore, a high margin of error. The same study found that those who were least likely to have ID were women, blacks and Democrats.

In September 2005, the Carter Baker Commission issued its report, which contained 87 recommendations for improving the access and integrity of the U.S. electoral process. To achieve those goals, the commission noted that the following are needed: accurate lists of registered voters; adequate voter identification; voting technology that precisely records and tabulates votes and is subject to verification; and capable, fair and non-partisan election administration.

To date, no state has enacted all those recommendations. Indiana could be the first. Citizens should encourage the General Assembly to legislate additional election reforms, such as expanded voting hours; an impartial, professional, fully funded State Election Commission; reliable voting technology; electronic poll books to help voters find their correct precinct on Election Day; and more convenient voting processes for Americans overseas.

When citizens can freely exercise their right to vote and have their vote recorded correctly, they will have confidence in the integrity of the electoral process and will be able to hold their elected officials accountable. Our state has few priorities higher than maintaining the strength of our democracy.

Williams is regional venture partner of Hopewell Ventures, a Midwest-focused private-equity firm. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at bwilliams@ibj.com.
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