A Few Good States

When it comes to election systems, the United States isn't all Floridas and Ohios. There are, in fact, a number of states that tend to run their elections well, through trusted systems and voter-friendly procedures. They don't grab the attention of journalists and reformers precisely because they rarely produce newsworthy controversies and snafus.

Reform experts insist that no single state combines all of the best election-day policies into one ideal system. But generally those states that do well follow two guidelines: first, they employ turnout-boosting policies that make voting as easy and accessible as possible; and second, they put into place processes that help centralize a state's system and promote uniformity. These two, in combination, make for a successful formula.

States with good voting outcomes demonstrate these elements in various combinations. Maine and Minnesota in particular have long boasted attractive assortments of turnout-boosting measures. In these states, traditionally high levels of civic engagement tend to encourage progressive election policies and widespread trust in the system, which, in a self-reinforcing cycle, lead to higher turnout. Such a progressive electoral culture does not exist in Georgia, which has employed a different, top-down model to bring about change. There, a handful of reformers working in a fortuitous political climate have made all the difference. Since the 2000 election, fair-voting advocates have been able to overhaul Georgia's election process, creating a more centralized and standardized voting system.

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Maine ranked third in the nation this year in voter turnout, at 72.6 percent of the eligible voting-age population. It ranked fourth in 2000. That's indication alone that there is a great deal right with Maine's election system. The most important of the state's turnout-boosting provisions is election-day registration. Maine was the first state in the country to adopt the measure, in 1972. But the state goes further. For those unregistered voters who show up at the polls on election day without proper identification, Maine has for years offered “challenge ballots” -- a variation on the provisional ballots mandated by 2002's federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) for states without election-day registration. Maine is also one of only two (Vermont is the other) states that place no voting restrictions whatsoever on felons, who are allowed to vote in prison. Finally, since 2001, Maine has been one of the 25 states that offer “no excuse” absentee balloting.

These turnout-boosting measures themselves contribute to the efficiency of election-day proceedings. Felon enfranchisement ensures that eligible voters won't accidentally be removed from voter rolls through purges, while no-excuse absentee balloting helps to minimize long lines and swamped polling places on election day. Portland City Clerk Linda Cohen attributes the “incredibly smooth” election-day proceedings in her jurisdiction last November to the unprecedented use of absentee ballots. “We had almost 10,000 absentees in Portland,” she said. “That's almost 20 percent of our voting population … . There were hardly any phone calls reporting problems in the polling places. There were no lines at 8 [p.m.],” despite record turnout in the city.

Maine also features elements of centralized and streamlined organization, including mandated biannual poll-worker training, voter-education and outreach initiatives, and detailed administrative prescriptions for carrying out automatic recounts. But overall, the process remains resolutely local and low-tech. The state has yet to establish a statewide voter-registration database. More than 80 percent of Maine communities still count paper ballots by hand. Indeed, the most recent piece of election-reform legislation to pass in the state prohibits the adoption of electronic voting machines that don't leave a paper trail. The bill's sponsor, state Representative Hannah Pingree, suggests that Maine's system of publicly financed campaigns may have contributed to the fact that “there were no major connections to voting-machine companies in the Legislature. Nobody came and lobbied on this bill.”

But perhaps the biggest boon to Maine's democratic standing is its tradition of civic participation. “I live in a town of 350 people, and every March we still have a town meeting where 150 to 200 people show up,” says Pingree. “The participation is what then fuels people to pay attention to the system,” and to seek to make it accessible and accountable.

Minnesota shares a similar political culture. Indeed, the state's tradition of robust political participation and a transparent election system seemed to ensure a smooth election process this year in spite of the antics of the secretary of state, whom many suspect of partisan hackery. Minnesota has boasted the highest turnout rate in the country for the last three election cycles, this year reaching 78 percent of its eligible voting-age population. Like Maine, the North Star State enjoys a tradition of strong civic participation and offers a nice package of voter-friendly election measures: election-day registration, early voting, felon re-enfranchisement, even a law mandating paid time off of work on election day.

Also like Maine, a good-government political culture undergirds the state's sturdy election system. State Senator Chuck Wiger of St. Paul, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, attributes the successful election process to “Minnesota tradition.” But that tradition was put to the test this year when critics questioned the competence and good faith of Republican Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer in the months leading up to the election. Kiffmeyer's loose accusations of voter fraud, preoccupation with publicizing the danger of an election-day terrorist attack in the state, and exacting requirements for voter identification all contributed to the impression that she was trying to suppress the vote. But Minnesota's system of accountability and fair election practices proved effective. Wiger led pre-election hearings in the state Senate in which Kiffmeyer was grilled about logistical preparedness and the viability of the statewide voter database her office was implementing. “Had we not had those interim hearings on the problems in the system,” he argues, “there would have been significant problems during the election cycle.” The state's oversight structure ensured a smooth process.

Moreover, and to Kiffmeyer's credit, reports indicate that the voter database worked effectively across the state. Dan Seligson, editor of the nonpartisan Election Reform Information Project's Web site, electionline.org, believes such statewide databases (a HAVA requirement for all states by 2006) could prove immensely beneficial. “The problem of voters lost in the system and the need for provisional ballots will be at least somewhat alleviated by having a good statewide voter-registration database,” he said. “It'll have a profound effect on the centralization of elections.”

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Indeed, the centralization of election administration should stand as perhaps the overarching goal for states that don't enjoy robust civic traditions: The standardization of procedures and consolidation of voter information mitigate arbitrary disparities across counties and localities, clarify procedural problems, and alleviate the long lines and logistical bottlenecks that can amount to a kind of de facto voter suppression. Nowhere have the benefits of centralized reform been better illustrated than in Georgia.

The Peach State does not have a tradition of strong civic participation or a history of well-run elections. Turnout in 2000 was 45.8 percent of the eligible voting-age population, below the national average. Election administration was highly decentralized, with a hodgepodge of voting methods that contributed to a rejected ballot (“undervote”) rate of 3.5 percent, representing 93,991 Georgia voters. That rate exceeded not only the national average (1.9 percent) but also the rate in Florida (2.9 percent).

In January 2001, the Democratic secretary of state, Cathy Cox, issued a thorough and blistering report assessing the problems in Georgia's patchwork elections system and offering an array of reform proposals -- most prominently a call for uniform touchscreen voting machines and standardized poll-worker training across the state. That year, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature passed just such a reform. The state spent $54 million on 22,000 Diebold Inc. electronic voting machines and an additional $4.5 million on staff training and statewide voter-education programs. The system was tested in municipal elections in 2001, then launched statewide during the 2002 midterm cycle.

Georgia was the only state in the country that managed to implement a comprehensive election overhaul in the aftermath of 2000. How, and why, did it happen there? State Representative Bob Holmes, who chaired the Governmental Affairs Committee at the time, argues that the enthusiastic advocacy of two activist state leaders proved decisive, while the fact that Georgia was decidedly not a battleground state in 2000 tended to lessen partisan tensions over the issue. “We were able to do this under the radar, so to speak,” he says. “All the attention wasn't on Georgia, because [George W.] Bush won by 12 points here. … And we had two very progressive leaders -- the governor, Roy Barnes, and the secretary of state, Cathy Cox -- who thought it was the right thing to do.”

Georgians love their reformed election system. Undervote rates dropped from 3.5 percent in 2000 to 0.39 percent in 2004. A pre-election survey found that 84 percent of Georgians believe that the touchscreen system is an improvement over paper ballots, while exit polls taken on November 2 showed that 90 percent of voters believed their votes were being accurately counted. What of the controversy over Diebold's political connections and paperless ballots? Holmes, for one, acknowledges that a paper-audit system might be desirable, but stresses that the state “did not receive any complaints about alleged ballot stuffing or people saying they voted and it didn't register the way they wanted it to.”

Georgia's election reforms have accompanied a heartening boost in turnout, with its eligible voting-age population participation rate increasing by nearly 10 percent between 2000 and 2004, from 45.8 percent to 55.7 percent. The state's reform experience highlights a worthy path for other states to chart. It also sends a message to states that may lack the hearty political traditions of a Maine or a Minnesota: Law actually can lead the way.

Sam Rosenfeld is a Prospect Web writer.