Talk Story


Tuesday, December 18, 2001

election reform is
coming to America

IF, as Paul Valery once said, "politics is a means of preventing people from taking part in what properly concerns them," then politics in Hawaii is approaching perfection.

Hawaii ranks 49th in the nation in voter turnout. Only 37.4 percent of eligible voters showed up for the 2000 presidential election. Of these, 34.9 percent voted for George W. Bush, effectively wasting their votes since electoral, not popular, votes actually count.

In other words, only 24.3 percent of eligible Hawaii voters determined that our two electoral votes would be cast for Al Gore.

Of course, there are good reasons for island apathy. Being five time zones away from Washington, Hawaii voters can't help feeling out of the loop.

For decades the networks announced the winners before polls closed here. It's hard to be enthusiastic when you know the final score before you get to play the game.

Hawaii's record is next to worst, but voter turnout is a problem throughout the nation.

The embarrassing vote-count debacle in Florida last year, which threw the presidential election into the Supreme Court, didn't improve matters. It was the electoral equivalent of Sunday's Cleveland Browns-Jacksonville Jaguars football game, which ended in a near riot with fans pelting officials with bottles.

As Abba Eban once said, "Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all the other alternatives." So Congress is now scrambling to overhaul elections and make them at least as respectable as your average NFL game.

Exactly a year after the Supremes gave the election to Bush, the House passed the Hoyer-Ney election reform bill, which now goes to the Senate. The margin of victory was 362-63, a landslide by today's partisan standards.

We can expect the Senate to tinker with the House bill and come up with its own version, leaving a conference committee to grind the final sausage, but we can also expect a final bill to slide into law without much ado.

As the measure now stands, the federal government will cough up $2.65 billion to fund a list of activities meant to bring state election systems up to a minimum standard. Most of the money will be spent on voter education, polling equipment and hiring and training poll workers.

A chunk of the total, $400 million, would be spent to replace discredited punch-card voting machines - the ones that entertained us so much and made "butterfly ballot" and "pregnant chad" household words.

Unfortunately, Hawaii is unlikely to share the $400 million. We've already bit the bullet and paid to replace our punched IBM-card machines with electronic scanners. That decision wasn't driven by Palm Beach County-like dysfunction, but by the high cost of the obsolete IBM-card ballots.

After laying out the big bucks, the feds will also lay down the law. The bill will require statewide voter registrations systems to enable local officials to try to resolve issues of voter eligibility on the spot. If they can't, challenged voters would cast provisional ballots, which will be counted when and if registration is verified.

To avoid the county-by-county differences about which Florida votes counted and which didn't, states also will have to define what constitutes a legal vote in a way that will apply statewide.

Finally, the new voting systems must check for ballot errors and allow voters to correct them in secret before leaving the polls. This should reduce "undervotes," where no vote was cast in a race, and "overvotes" where more than one candidate was picked in the same contest.

The election reform bill attempts to prevent a repeat of any of the bizarre deviations that cropped up in Florida and elsewhere in 2000. Admittedly, this will take a lot of the fun out of election watching.

But remember, this is supposed to be a participant sport, not a spectator sport.

Cynicism is inevitable in a system that has produced so much corruption and scandal here and across the country. Fixing the nuts and bolts of casting ballots -- the cornerstone of the democratic process -- is essential to begin to restore faith in the system and improve voter participation.

"In America," Adlai Stevenson said, "anyone can become president. That's one of the risks you take."

Election reform should make it less of a crapshoot.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
He can be reached at:

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