When Maryland finished counting ballots after its Sept. 12 primary, the finger pointing about responsibility for that day's chaos at the polls began in earnest. Dozens of polling places failed to open on time, others opened without their voting machines working, new electronic poll books kept crashing and after polling hours were extended for an hour in two major counties, even more problems developed based on many poll workers not learning of the extension or how to handle it.
With critical elections for nearly all of Maryland's highest offices expected to be closely contested this November, the Keystone Cops nature of the primary elections was all the more troubling -- and sadly reflective of the state of affairs in our elections nationally. Not only did inept election administration cause hundreds of people to lose their right to vote entirely and frustrate thousands more, it also increased community distrust in the basic functioning of our democracy at a time when participation is more important than ever.
Americans must see their elected officials and election administrators taking bold, clear steps to reassure them that our state can run secure and fair elections. With elections looming just days away, however, immediate drastic changes would be counterproductive. It wouldn't be easy for new county election chiefs to hit the ground running or smoothly handle a massive shift to voting with paper ballots. If Maryland's primary elections tell us anything, it is that our current system cannot handle stress.
What we can do is uphold two fundamental principles of running elections well: accountability and transparency. The blame game among state elections officials, county board chairs, county election staff and various political leaders only increases voter cynicism -- and points to policy changes demanded next year.
Let's start with accountability. We want each county elections director to pledge that they accept full accountability for what happens in November. For the moment, counties are usually responsible for key decisions such as hiring, training and paying poll workers, setting up polling places, establishing systems of Election Day communication and handling breakdowns in electronic machines and poll books.
But we not only must trust, but verify. Every election director should make public in a timely way for public review and comment their county's plan for running elections that addresses any problem exposed in the primary elections and a full checklist of what they plan to do in preparation for November. We need utter transparency for decision-making that all too often is made behind closed doors.
Looking at a concrete example, one of the most astounding breakdowns in our home county of Montgomery in Maryland was with Election Day communication. Once poll workers in dozens of polling places found they didn't have the access cards necessary to start up their electronic machines, many had no clue what to do -- and then were on hold for the central office for half an hour. When polls were extended, many poll workers never learned about it from the county, while others botched the process by failing to allow people in line before the original poll-closing time to continue to vote on the electronic machines. It's hardly rocket science to develop efficient means for people to communicate with one another. A simple requirement that poll workers call in every 90 minutes by cell phone to staff at headquarters will eliminate situations where poll workers are unaware of court rulings extending poll hours.
But much more is needed beyond November. We must review our elections from top to bottom. We should increase funding for such basic systems as obtaining and training poll workers, take steps to protect voting rights and secure voting in city elections, and ask whether new electronic technology for voting and checking in voters has created more problems then it has solved. We should move to new, simpler voting machines that have paper trails and can handle democracy innovations like Takoma Park, Maryland's new instant-runoff voting system.
Resolving accountability is the most fundamental demand. The international model, one last year proposed by a national commission headed by Jimmy Carter and James Baker, is to establish a nonpartisan state elections chief with the authority to direct local elections boards. After appointment by the governor and confirmation by a supermajority in the legislature, this official would have real independence from political pressure -- but strict accountability to standards of performance, combined with transparent processes in place to establish both pre-election and post-election accountability.
Our current decentralized structure is a recipe for mutual finger pointing. In a recent hearing before the Montgomery County Council, the head of the Montgomery County Board of Elections acknowledged "human errors" within her office, but mostly blamed the state for the primary election debacle. Meanwhile, the head of the State Board of Election blames local elections boards and even "the system" for the failures. Does "the system" have a name, a phone number or an office address? Our fundamental problem is not simply human error, but our inability to answer the simple but critical question: "Who's in charge?"
Democracy is not only a goal for export. We must bring it home. Let's start by running better elections this November and then establish clear accountability and transparency through policy changes next year.
Tom Perez serves on the Montgomery County Council in Maryland. Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote (fairvote.org); phone 301-270-4616.
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