A Plan to Modernize Our Voting Systems

Guest Commentary

Volume CI, No. 2February, 2001

Charles E. Schumer, U.S. Senator

On Nov. 7, my wife and I arrived at our polling place in Brooklyn at 7:30 a.m. We waited in line for over 30 minutes. I entered the voting booth shortly after eight, accompanied by my eleven-year-old daughter. I cast my ballot and then realized I couldn’t find the Transportation Bond Act. Finally, my daughter tugged at my leg and said, “Here it is Daddy,” pointing at the lever in the lower right hand corner of the booth.

That was my voting experience. Compared to many New Yorkers – thousands of whom encountered long lines, broken voting machines and a shortage of emergency ballots – it wasn’t that bad. And compared to what happened in Florida, it was a wild success. We live in the greatest democracy in the history of the world. Yet we vote as if we still lived in the 19th Century.

That’s why Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, and I have introduced the Voting Study and Improvement Act of 2000. The bill directs the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) to conduct a top-to-bottom, $10 million study of alternative methods of voting and recommend the best options. It then creates a $500 million matching grants program, giving states the funding they need to implement the FEC’s blueprint. If our bill passes the FEC study will be complete by Dec. 31, 2001, giving states time to implement the new systems for the mid-term 2002 elections, and have all of the problems worked out by the next Presidential election in 2004.

Our bill does not endorse any one method of voting, since each alternate method has its advantages and disadvantages. The FEC will look at an array of options, including internet voting, vote by mail, installing touch screen polling machines and expanding voting hours. It will see what works best, figure out how to fix what doesn’t work, and then make recommendations that states can implement with relative speed and ease.

There is no single, perfect alternative, but every method should be defined by three key watchwords: honesty, accuracy and speed.

Our bill neither attempts to usurp the states’ right to determine how to conduct elections, which is protected in the Constitution, nor does it create new bureaucracies to replicate what the FEC already does. Its goal is simple and direct: create a system of voting that’s accessible and accurate, and as innovative as the people who use it. That’s why our bill has bipartisan support, and it’s why it has been endorsed by state officials and by leading organizations like Common Cause, the American Arbitration Association, the National Academy of Public Administration and the Center for Voting and Democracy.

The horrors of this Election Day have given states ample incentive to upgrade their voting systems. Our bill offers them the know-how and funding to make it happen.