April 16, 2004

Commentary:

Guaranteeing Democracy

Help America Vote Act (HAVA)

By Congressman Charles Gonzalez
Chair, CHC Civil Rights Task Force

Our predecessors in Congress fought for the right of every American to be able to take part in our democracy. Thanks to their efforts and those of countless others, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This was the first step in positive reform for our nation’s voting system. Eliminating literacy tests and other legal barriers that had for too long denied minorities the right to vote, showing that a true democracy was ever evolving and that the law must change with the times. While the challenges we face today are different than the ones then, the goal remains the same - to guarantee the cherished right to vote for all Americans.

In the fall of 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA was supposed to correct the problems with the nation’s electoral systems. It set requirements for voting and voter registration systems, established the Election Assistance Commission, authorized funding for States to replace outdated voting equipment, train poll workers, educate voters, makes polling places more accessible for the disabled, provides provisional ballots, upgrades voter lists, and implements computerized statewide voter registration databases.

Unfortunately, though the bill authorized $3.6 billion for individual states to carry out the required election administration improvements, President Bush and the Republican leadership failed to make full funding for HAVA a top priority. Without the necessary funds or the guidance of the Election Assistance Commission — which was only recently appointed — many states have applied for compliance waivers or opted for the most basic reforms, continuing to leave our voting system vulnerable. Instead of a blanket, comprehensive reform, what we have is a hodgepodge of inconsistent and incomplete reforms that do not guarantee that the problems that previously plagued our election system have been eliminated.

For example, HAVA requires states to develop statewide voter registration databases, but 41 states have requested waivers allowing them to postpone action until 2006 - after the next presidential election. Punch card systems will still be used in some elections in 22 states in 2004. There is no standard for implementing the new voter identification requirement for fist-time voters. And, uncertainty about the most accurate voting systems and whether or not voter-verifiable paper audit trails should be required have resulted in delays in upgrading voting systems.

While Florida received most of the media spotlight, the 2000 presidential election showed us that the election problems like out-of-date and faulty voting equipment, confusing ballots, poorly trained election workers, and poorly kept voter registration rolls existed across the country. Some of these problems were merely inconvenient, but many of them meant that properly registered voters were prevented from making their voices heard through their vote. This should never happen again.

Failure to take action to effectively reform our nation’s electoral system will ensure that many Americans will continue to be disenfranchised. Failed machinery, voter intimidation, and a system that fails to count thousands of votes, should no longer be part of American’s voting system or democracy.

Congressman Gonzalez is currently in his third term in the United States Congress as the Representative from the 20th Congressional District of Texas.

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