Can America Run a Fairer Election?

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


State actions. While efforts to pass federal rules regulating election officials and partisan activities have failed, a few states have taken action. Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Maine, Ohio, and Virginia now ban their chief election officials from participating in certain partisan politics, such as serving on political campaign committees and publicly endorsing candidates. And some secretaries of state—including those in Oregon, Connecticut, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Vermont—have voluntarily pledged not to serve on political campaign committees or to publicly endorse candidates, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Secretaries of State.

The 2002 reform law created the U.S. Election Assistance Commission to assist states in improving their voting procedures. (This is different from the Federal Election Commission, which oversees campaign finance laws.) But the assistance commission lacks any regulatory power and so has focused mostly on collecting information for states. "It's really now a clearinghouse, which is a great idea," says Yale Law School Prof. Heather Gerken. "But it's gotta be a good referee."

Yet recently, the commission has drawn complaints of partisanship. For instance, researcher Tova Andrea Wang says that a report on voter fraud and intimidation that she cowrote for the commission in 2006 was significantly altered. Wang, whose approach to election issues is more closely aligned with Democrats, was paired with a Republican coauthor for balance. But she says that the commission's final report excluded much of the discussion of voter intimidation and all references to questions she raised about the Justice Department's handling of complaints of voter fraud and intimidation.

After some members of Congress inquired about the handling of the report this spring, Commission Chair Donetta Davidson, a Republican who was formerly Colorado's secretary of state, asked its inspector general for a review of what happened. The investigation is still pending, without a target date for completion.

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the Election Assistance Commission's balance. The Carter-Baker commission has been critical of its partisan nature and has recommended that Congress approve legislation that would add as its chair a fifth nonpartisan member, who would serve alongside the two Democratic and two Republican commissioners.

Without clear direction from the federal government, election reforms that have taken place have been an uneven patchwork of legislation passed at the state and county level. Sarasota, for example, has approved spending $3 million to replace the touch-screen voting machines with optical scanners that provide a paper trail. Officials hope to have the new machines in place for the 2008 presidential election.