The Democratic platform approved this week by convention delegates in Boston contains strong language regarding the party’s commitment to protect the right of Americans to vote–and have their votes counted. “We will call for legislative action that will fully protect and enforce the fundamental Constitutional right of every American to vote–to ensure that the Constitution’s promise is fully realized and that, in disputed elections, every vote is counted fully and fairly,” the document declares, adding a call for “independently auditable” voting systems.
The message is appropriate. In light of the 2000 Florida recount debacle and the ensuing US Supreme Court intervention, which cost their candidate the presidency, Democrats ought to be leading the fight to fix this country’s decaying electoral systems. Yet that strong platform language was not inserted by Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry; it was forced in by Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., a platform committee member who had to fight with Kerry aides, who did not want the document to be too controversial. Jackson prevailed on most points. But he and other activists still worry about whether the party will push hard enough on voting issues. Certainly Kerry and many convention speakers have talked a lot about the need to “count every vote” this year. And the Kerry campaign and the party have worked to assure that votes are cast and counted correctly.
But fundamental flaws remain unaddressed. Voter registration problems, which cost as many as 3 million Americans their right to vote in 2000, have yet to be corrected in many states. In some states new ID requirements could actually make it harder for eligible voters to register. Despite evidence that Florida’s “ex-felon” purge lists were used in 2000 to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters, purges continue across the country. Protections are inadequate to assure that citizens who are denied their voting rights can appeal in time to participate in the election. Even when people do get to vote, they can’t be assured that their votes will be counted accurately. According to a study by MIT and Cal Tech, a substantial portion of the roughly 6 million Americans who were disenfranchised in 2000 suffered that fate because of bad ballots and machines, yet thousands of polling places across the country still use the sort of voting machinery that caused problems in Florida and other states in 2000. And, as Ronnie Dugger explains in this issue, tens of thousands more will be using new electronic voting equipment with security problems so severe that California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley has cracked down on its use, and officials in some Ohio counties have simply barred it. It’s no wonder that League of Women Voters president Kay Maxwell says, “The 2004 election is in danger.”
There is still time to act. The league, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, the NAACP and other civil rights groups have called for emergency moves to fund the Help America Vote Act adequately, to insure that voter registration data are collected and transferred quickly and effectively and to train election officials. The groups also want states to prevent new purges of voter lists less than ninety days before the election, so that those purged can be notified and given enough time to challenge the decision. Congress should pass legislation requiring a paper trail for electronic voting machines; short of that, activists at the state level should get secretaries of state and elections boards to guarantee the security of electronic voting. That’s a long agenda. It’ll need a high-profile push to get it addressed. That’s why John Kerry and the Democrats ought to do as Jesse Jackson Jr. suggests and make voting rights central to the fall campaign. For motivation, they need only recall the crime scene that was Florida in 2000.