HAVA Good Laugh

It seems, according to Stateline’s Jake Grovum, that the president’s casual “we have to fix that” comment on long voting lines during his November 6 victory speech has put the need for election reform in the spotlight in a way that four years of fights over voter suppression efforts never quite did. But Republican hostility, some knee-jerk “it’s our prerogative” backlash from state officials in both parties, and a federal budget “crisis” that makes new federal spending initiatives problematic, are all conspiring to inhibit progress.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, right? After the 2000 fiasco, the great American electoral non-system, in which states and in many places counties pretty much ran elections however they wanted (unless they were subject to Justice Department scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act of 1965), was going to change for certain sure.

And then, like the world’s cheapest carnival consolation prize, we got HAVA, the Help America Vote Act:

Differences over local control are part of what led to the failure of the last Washington-driven attempt at election reform. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, a measure setting minimum standards for states to reach in addressing some of the more egregious shortcomings in the 2000 election.

But by most accounts HAVA, as the act is known, has proven woefully inefficient. It established the Election Assistance Commission, which currently has all four of its commissioner positions standing vacant and has no executive director, either.

“Basically, HAVA got rid of punch cards,” says Karin Mac Donald, director of the Election Administration Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Otherwise, it accomplished little. “There was so much variability on the local level,” she says.

That variability – both in the enforcement of HAVA’s changes and in the conduct of elections in general – is at the root of much of the problem around the country. Standards on everything from poll workers and polling places to ballot length vary wildly from state to state.

HAVA was meant to address that. But it simply wasn’t tough enough, voting experts say, and it lacked clear, mandated goals for what elections should look like. “It seems there are always so many attempts to please everybody,” Mac Donald says. “There have to be some kind of teeth.”

So please, reformers, if you are going to offer proposals in this area, don’t bother offering HAVA II, another set of vague election guidelines backed by inadequate grants. Personally–and I say this as someone far more sympathetic to state governments than most bloggers–I think running fair and efficient elections is so basic a part of state government responsibilities that no one should have to beg and bribe them to clean up their act (aside from the fact that cost complaints often just disguise a partisan determination to restrict the franchise).

Within the constitutional limitations, the goal should be national voting rights and national standards for election administration. Anything less than that will just lead to another laughable failure like HAVA.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.