Reforming elections

December 7, 2004
News Article
Statement from the Clerk

We didn’t hear much about hanging chads, faulty voting equipment or questionable polling place procedures following the Nov. 2 presidential election. 
A comfortable margin of victory spared most election administrators and voting machines from scrutiny. But that doesn’t mean democracy is in good shape.

The federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) – ironically intended to reform elections and prevent Florida-like debacles – created a patchwork of election laws and procedures that differed greatly, not only state to state, but sometimes county to county.

For example, provisional ballots voted in Cook County were counted for federal offices even if voters cast them outside of their home precinct. But provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct in most other Illinois counties were disqualified, even if those voters were otherwise eligible to vote, and despite a recommendation from the Illinois State Board of Elections to count those ballots.

Nationally, glaring inconsistencies were equally troubling: only five states (Illinois included) require electronic voting machines to produce a voter-verifiable paper record in case of a recount; only 20 states allow former felons to vote after their release; and only a handful of states allow for adequate testing and monitoring of electronic voting machines that is transparent to the public.

To remove barriers that threaten to disenfranchise eligible voters and ensure accurate vote counts, we need to adopt uniform standards in administering federal elections. In addition to determining how to count provisional ballots, Illinois needs to consider other reforms. They include:

Establishing early voting. Providing early voting at local municipal halls or other sites would make it more convenient for voters and would help alleviate lines at polling places. Thirty-five states already permit voters to cast ballots before the election if voters find it more convenient to vote that way. Currently, Illinois voters can vote early by mail or in-person absentee, but only if they give a reason permitted under the law as to why they cannot make it to the polls on Election Day.

Easing voting restrictions. Requiring voters who register by mail to vote in person the first time they cast a ballot is no longer necessary. Under HAVA, these voters must prove their identity before they vote, but Illinois remains one of the few states that do not allow these voters to vote absentee. Prior to last month’s election, my office was inundated with complaints from frustrated voters, including many college students, who had registered by mail but were scheduled to be out of town on Election Day and were prohibited from voting absentee.

Implementing holiday or weekend voting. Declaring Election Day a holiday or extending it to a weekend, instead of a 13-hour day, would enable voters with busy workday schedules more time to get to the polls. It would also allow better access to schools and other polling locations, and increase the pool of election judges, including teachers and other professionals, who could serve without taking a day off work.

Allowing same-day registration. Most of the electorate does not focus on campaigns until the final weeks before voting and after the voter registration deadline has passed. The ability to register to vote on Election Day would increase voter participation and enfranchise more individuals who are qualified to vote, including younger people who are more transient. Same-day registration would also eliminate the need for provisional ballots.

Extending absentee ballot counting. Too often, delays in mail delivery prevent election officials from counting absentee ballots because they arrive after Election Day. Accepting absentee ballots that are postmarked before Election Day and received by local election authorities up to 14 days after the election would permit voters who cast ballots in good faith to have their votes counted. In suburban Cook County, more than 1,500 absentee ballots were not counted because they were delivered after the election.

Removing judges. On the November ballot, Cook County voters were asked to wade through a list of 74 judges up for retention, most of whom they knew nothing about. Merit retention would create a non-partisan commission to: evaluate judges; automatically retain those deemed qualified; and require only those found unqualified to appear on the ballot. Such a reform would provide better scrutiny of judges while shortening the ballot and lines at the polls.

Resolving these lingering flaws will boost voter confidence and restore credibility to a fragile electoral process. But if we continue to ignore election reform and bet on lopsided margins of victory in future elections, democracy will be the clear loser.

David Orr
Cook County Clerk