Can America Run a Fairer Election?

Why it's so hard to make sure that voting day goes as it should.

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While the Orange County fliers case is particularly flagrant, voting rights activists say some new state laws designed to eliminate voter fraud also prevent eligible voters from casting ballots. The 2002 election reform law was supposed to settle the controversies surrounding voting registration by requiring computerized statewide voter lists. But disputes have erupted over state efforts to manage the voter registration process. Known as "voter purges" by their opponents, these new laws attempt to update registration lists by comparing voter lists with information in other government databases, including the state's motor vehicle database or the federal Social Security database. But these measures have erroneously eliminated thousands of eligible voters—most often, critics say, minorities and women.

Disputed rules. The NAACP filed a federal lawsuit challenging a new voting law in Florida, which prevents voters from registering if their driver's license or Social Security card does not match what is on the registration form. The suit argues that people could be prevented from voting because of simple discrepancies, such as two transposed numbers on a driver's license or if a woman's driver's license or Social Security card still has her maiden name after she is married. Several other states, including Ohio, Maryland, Georgia, and Missouri, have enacted similar regulations in recent years.

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether Indiana's photo ID law unfairly discriminates against the poor and minorities, who often do not have driver's licenses. The state of Indiana argues that the law combats voter fraud. But critics have pointed out numerous problems with ID restrictions—most notoriously, that in 2006 Ohio Rep. Steven Chabot was turned away from the voting booth because the addresses on his ID and his registration did not match, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was turned away after forgetting his identification. Seven states require photo ID to vote, and 17 others require identification without photos, according to the Pew-funded Electionline.org.

Democratic Party officials say their candidates are most often handicapped by these and other voting rules, although it's not entirely one-sided, as Republicans Sanford and Chabot found. And some experts say the real problems often may be less partisan than mundane. Cecelia Martinez, executive director of the nonpartisan Reform Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for election reform, argues that many more voters are disenfranchised by a lack of basic information, such as poll location or registration status, than by machine error, fraud, or intimidation. About 65 percent of the calls made to a national voter hotline during the 2006 midterm elections, she says, were from callers trying to find their polling location. "Partisan quarreling over vote tampering and intimidation allegations have received the most attention when it comes to election administration," says Martinez, "but providing better information to voters in an easily accessible manner must be a major focus of efforts to increase voter participation and improve election administration."

Few people paid much attention to the office of secretary of state until the 2000 elections, when Katherine Harris, the then Florida secretary of state, became something of a household name. Like most secretaries of state, Harris was her state's top election official. Yet while she made decisions about the contentious presidential recount, she was also serving in a partisan role as cochair for the George Bush campaign in Florida.

Despite the outcry over her double role, she's not unique. Several secretaries of state (and other state officials who oversee elections) are still involved in partisan politics, even endorsing presidential candidates. Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita and Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah—the top election officials—are backing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Rhode Island Secretary of State A. Ralph Mollis is endorsing Sen. Hillary Clinton, and Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer has stumped for Sen. John McCain. Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey characterizes this kind of situation as a "blatant conflict of interest." Lautenberg introduced legislation in 2005 that would prohibit state election officials from participating in the political campaign of a candidate running for federal office. But Brewer disagrees. "I don't believe that when I became secretary of state," she says, "that I gave up my First Amendment rights."