Political Animal


December 14, 2012 10:15 AM HAVA Good Laugh

By Ed Kilgore

It seems, according to Stateline’s Jake Grovum, that the president’s casual “we have to fix that” comment on long voting lines during his November 6 victory speech has put the need for election reform in the spotlight in a way that four years of fights over voter suppression efforts never quite did. But Republican hostility, some knee-jerk “it’s our prerogative” backlash from state officials in both parties, and a federal budget “crisis” that makes new federal spending initiatives problematic, are all conspiring to inhibit progress.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way, right? After the 2000 fiasco, the great American electoral non-system, in which states and in many places counties pretty much ran elections however they wanted (unless they were subject to Justice Department scrutiny under the Voting Rights Act of 1965), was going to change for certain sure.

And then, like the world’s cheapest carnival consolation prize, we got HAVA, the Help America Vote Act:

Differences over local control are part of what led to the failure of the last Washington-driven attempt at election reform. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, a measure setting minimum standards for states to reach in addressing some of the more egregious shortcomings in the 2000 election.
But by most accounts HAVA, as the act is known, has proven woefully inefficient. It established the Election Assistance Commission, which currently has all four of its commissioner positions standing vacant and has no executive director, either.
“Basically, HAVA got rid of punch cards,” says Karin Mac Donald, director of the Election Administration Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Otherwise, it accomplished little. “There was so much variability on the local level,” she says.
That variability - both in the enforcement of HAVA’s changes and in the conduct of elections in general - is at the root of much of the problem around the country. Standards on everything from poll workers and polling places to ballot length vary wildly from state to state.
HAVA was meant to address that. But it simply wasn’t tough enough, voting experts say, and it lacked clear, mandated goals for what elections should look like. “It seems there are always so many attempts to please everybody,” Mac Donald says. “There have to be some kind of teeth.”

So please, reformers, if you are going to offer proposals in this area, don’t bother offering HAVA II, another set of vague election guidelines backed by inadequate grants. Personally—and I say this as someone far more sympathetic to state governments than most bloggers—I think running fair and efficient elections is so basic a part of state government responsibilities that no one should have to beg and bribe them to clean up their act (aside from the fact that cost complaints often just disguise a partisan determination to restrict the franchise).

Within the constitutional limitations, the goal should be national voting rights and national standards for election administration. Anything less than that will just lead to another laughable failure like HAVA.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on December 14, 2012 10:30 AM:

    Why have HAVA, when we need NEEDA?
    "National Equal Elections Defined in America."

    Every two years, we have elections that impact the NATIONAL Government, so letting states define their own election standards, makes no sense - except for the people in those states who are trying to stop national progress by suppressing or preventing equal access to every eligible voter to those "ballot boxes."

  • John Robert BEHRMAN on December 14, 2012 11:45 AM:

    HAVA did more than get rid of punch cards. It organized and maintains bi-partisan support for various means of "convenience voting". These are voting reforms replacing oldfangled racial with newfangled computer-mediated forms of economic and social discrimination.

    I call what we now have the "credit scored" franchise: It is a Poll Tax by other means: high opportunity and transaction costs for people not owning a home and car.

    So, along with today's high-resolution gerrymandering of minority-majority districts, HAVA has advanced the old Federalist project of a property-qualified franchise. It fits well with a long-term hire military and indirect, regressive taxation of consumption.

    To be sure, some marginal or novel GOP vote-suppression measures such as "Voter ID" and "Long Lines" did not work this year. They backfired as NARWHAL technology swamped the polls and swept elections in battleground counties where the Obama campaign deployed it.

    But, the GOP "War on Voting" is asymmetric and far from over. The GOP has the doctrine, strategy, and money to persist. They have abandoned and defunded the EAC now that it no longer serves their purposes. They are happy to fall back on states that ALEC has targeted or, in the case of Texas, use a bastion.

    Democrats have career, mostly incumbent, office-seekers and their individual baggage-trains of bundlers, consultants, and other camp-followers. They do not have a principled republican counter to Federalist projects, much less the newfangled "constitutional" economics of the far right.

    President Obama won his race. Most incumbent Democrats got re-elected. So, after some perfunctory hand-wringing and nostalgia, they will abandon suffrage to those who are determined to subvert any vestige of majority rule and have not given up in over two centuries.

    Extension or even protection of suffrage requires responsible, two-party government, not this rotten regime of consent by the ungoverned and unpatriotic wealthy that we have today -- plutocracy, in a word.

  • schtick on December 14, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Teapubs can only win if they lie, cheat and steal and they are winning. Get used to it.

  • paul on December 14, 2012 1:01 PM:

    I still think that, since voting is a civil right, any attempt to deny it under color of law (based on race, creed or country of origin) should be punished as the federal crime that it is. One count per suppressed voter.

  • Doug on December 14, 2012 6:03 PM:

    Article I, Section 4, para 1: "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except in the places of chusing for Senators."

    Since the 17th Amendment took the "chusing" of Senators out of the hands of the state legislatures, my reading of this says that the Federal government can set the standards REQUIRED for the holding of elections for Senators and Representatives. Such standards should include the number of available voting machines per registered voters, the size of the precincts and the hours of voting for Federal elections. As Federal funds would need to be allotted to meet those requirements, I'd be very interested in hearing the Republicans' arguments against spending those sums.
    Just make certain that meeting any Federal standards isn't optional, but required.