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How Partisan Rivalry Can Lead to More Efficient Elections

Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- It has been five weeks since Americans cast their ballots for president and other elective offices. It shouldn’t be long now before we know the final vote tally. That’s right -- votes are still being counted.

In fact, Ohio, that most precious of swing states, added almost 60,000 votes to President Barack Obama’s column last week, when the state finally certified its election results. It’s precisely this kind of speed and efficiency that all but guarantee an election fiasco sometime very soon.

The last major voting disaster, the 2000 recount in Florida, almost ripped the country apart. The long voting lines, machine breakdowns and glacial count of votes in 2012 suggest we’ve learned little from our previous ordeal via butterfly ballots and the “Brooks Brothers riot.”

At a speech this week at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Attorney General Eric Holder said, “Election officials, wherever they are found, should also always be striving to administer elections more efficiently and more fairly.” Holder’s anodyne pronouncement will find few critics. Unfortunately, the statement -- or at least the democratic principles behind it -- appears to have even fewer true champions.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware has proposed the Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Voting Act of 2012 in response to “tens of thousands of Americans finding it far too difficult to exercise their fundamental right” to vote. The proposal is a successor to the Help America Vote Act, Congress’s tepid response to the 2000 election. HAVA, passed in 2002, set minimum standards for the states and established a federal Election Assistance Commission.

If you want to know how well HAVA has worked, just ask the people who waited in line for four hours or more to vote in Florida or Virginia. Or ask the members of the election commission created by the law. Actually, don’t bother -- all four commission seats are vacant. There’s no executive director, either.

With HAVA a shambles, Coons wants to establish a grant program similar to Obama’s Race to the Top. Instead of competing for education funds, states would compete for money to modernize polling places, starting with the worst.

There’s a drawback to the Coons legislation and other such proposals, including Holder’s call for national voting standards to guarantee access to the ballot. They have no Republican support. Easing congestion at the polls -- especially in poor neighborhoods, where it tends to be worst -- hasn’t seemed to be high on the party’s agenda.

Consequently, any systemic effort to make voting easier and more reliable is pretty much a nonstarter at the federal level. Action will probably have to take place in the states, and most likely in those where Democratic majorities are willing to enact -- and pay for -- upgraded systems and voting reforms.

Because most elections are funded locally, poor locales generally have less to spend on new machines or training for poll workers. It should come as no surprise, then, that in presidential years, when infrequent voters turn out in higher numbers, lines grow long, systems are stressed, and the chances of error and casual disenfranchisement escalate.

States can provide the funds needed to correct that, but democracy isn’t cheap. Maryland, for example, has fewer than 6 million people, yet the state spent more than $100 million on its election systems over the past decade. According to a 2010 report commissioned by the Maryland General Assembly, the state must spend millions more if it wants to supplant already-aging machines with an optical scanning system that increases efficiency while producing a paper trail to safeguard against malfunctions and help resolve potential disputes.

However, more efficient systems can also save money over the long term. Voter registration can be automated so that when voters engage with government agencies, changes of address are automatically registered on voting rolls. Early voting should be expanded to reduce logjams on Election Day. Voting machines should be properly stored and maintained to reduce breakdowns.

Because Democratic electoral prospects rise with turnout in the sort of poor, densely populated precincts where voting troubles often accumulate, Democrats have the greatest incentive to fix shabby voting systems. They should make it their goal to turn states in which Democrats dominate state government, such as California, Illinois and Maryland, into models of election efficiency. The perhaps giddy hope is that smooth elections with swift, reliable counts would offer a powerful contrast to long lines and even longer vote counting in states such as Florida and Ohio, spurring calls for modernization and reform in those states and others.

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