Who Really Won?

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Modernizing Elections

The nation's election administrators say it's time to restructure elections to reflect the way Americans live, scrapping neighborhood precincts and Election Day for large, customer-oriented "vote centers" where people could cast ballots over a period of weeks.

In a new, sweeping report, state and local officials focus much of their attention on voters and poll workers rather than voting machines - the subject of so much debate ever since the 2000 presidential stalemate in Florida.

"We are looking forward, we are looking at ways to make elections better," said Dawn Williams, who oversees voting in Marshall County, Iowa. She co-chaired a task force of officials and former officials from 15 states that was set up by the Houston-based Election Center.

So-called "universal vote centers," introduced two years ago on a limited basis in Colorado, could end some of the biggest flaws in the way Americans vote if widely implemented, administrators said.

Such centers eliminate confusion over where to vote, since everyone in a county can vote at any center; reduce lines by allowing for more equipment and staff at fewer locations; and prevent mistakes by better marshaling well-trained election officials along with day workers.

"It addresses what happened in Florida in 2000 better than the (federal) Help America Vote Act" - the law Congress passed to fix elections three years ago, said Larimer County (Colorado) Clerk Scott Doyle, who came up with the idea. "It's the way America lives. Why shouldn't America vote that way?"

Doyle sought and won a change in state law that allowed him to replace 143 precincts with 20 vote centers. Larger facilities - hotel ballrooms and state fairgrounds - allow easier access and parking for voters, and more efficient concentration of resources for administrators.

"There's an opportunity here to better meet our voters' needs and save millions of dollars," Doyle said. With vote centers, the county can save several hundred thousand dollars by buying fewer handicapped-accessible voting machines, since the new federal law requires one at each polling location, he said.

The report, to be officially released Tuesday, also backs a growing trend toward voting over days and weeks, rather than just Election Day.

At least 30 states have already broadened their balloting rules, expanding absentee voting to "no excuse" voting - so anyone who wants to vote absentee is allowed. In some places, residents can also vote early, in person, as much as a month ahead of Election Day.

"We've got to look at how we make this better for voters at all points. Don't try to fix the symptoms but say, `What is causing the problem and how do we fix them?"' said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, which trains election officials.

"Here are some concepts. They're not revolutionary concepts, they're evolutionary," Lewis said.