Election Reform


The public administration of elections is the fundamental basis for the freedom and fairness of our elections.  Without government control of elections and public scrutiny of the process, establishing the legitimacy of election results is not possible.  Publicly administered elections were until recently an unchallenged aspect of our democracy.  However, the move to computer systems to administer elections and the swift, federally-funded adoption of these systems has led to a privatization of many election functions.

Electronic voting machines are the most visible aspect of our voting systems that has been privatized.  Machine vendors insist on maintaining the privacy of both the hardware and software that they are selling or renting to states.  This is extremely dangerous to the security of our elections.  Without having access to the "guts" of the machines, there is no way to analyze machine errors or to determine how secure the machines are.  These private voting systems have caused serious problems.

Florida's 18,000 Missing Votes: In the case we mentioned earlier from Sarasota, Florida, both the loser of the race and a group of voters brought separate lawsuits seeking access to the voting machines and the software responsible for the 18,000 lost votes.  Both were denied access based on a claim by the Election Systems and Software Company that the machines and their software are trade secrets.  The court upheld the privacy rights of the corporation over the right of the people to a fair election.

New Jersey Voters Battle Sequoia: During this year's presidential primary, machines in 37 New Jersey counties recorded vote totals that did not match with summary tapes of the votes cast.  When county clerks tried to have a Princeton University computer scientist examine the machines, both the clerks and the professor were threatened with a lawsuit by the machine manufacturer.  In the face of a lawsuit the clerks dropped their efforts to have the machines examined.  A group of government reform advocates then filed a lawsuit to have the machines declared unreliable, and as a result of that lawsuit a judge has ordered that the machines be examined by independent computer professionals.

While the report based on that examination is forthcoming, another computer scientist purchased some of the machines through a government auction and has determined that they can easily be hacked.

Other parts of the election system have also been privatized in some states, including statewide voter registration databases and the poll books that contain the list of eligible voters.  In two instances from this past presidential primary, Georgia had numerous reports by voters that electronic poll books, made by Premier Election Solutions, were crashing and inoperable, leading to long lines and citizens leaving polling sites without casting ballots; in the New Mexico Democratic presidential caucus, a flawed voter registration database prepared for the state by the Elections Systems & Software Company led to thousands of voters' names not appearing on the voting rolls.

Principles of Public ElectionsVoter Action is the lead organization responding to the increasing privatization of our election systems.  In addition to paper ballots and post-election audits, they have identified the following as essential aspects of keeping public control over elections:

  • Open-source voting systems.  Even with voter-marked paper ballots, citizens must know that their right to vote overrides any alleged trade secret of a private corporation. When votes are counted in secret by private companies, the integrity of the process suffers.  All voting systems in the United States should be required to adhere to open-source standards.
  • Public oversight.  Public control of our elections is dependent upon an active, engaged citizenry monitoring the electoral process.  Grassroots networks across the country have already helped to expose key voting-rights barriers that threaten the integrity of our elections.  With even greater sunlight, we can help ensure that our elections are open, transparent, free, and fair.

Given the broader scandals in privatization of public services, it makes no sense to entrust our most fundamental right to vote to private companies that hide behind "trade secrets" and other corporate laws to escape accountability.



Currently one in forty-one Americans have lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction.  That is over 5 million people who are denied the right to vote.  Of those, over 2 million have completed their sentence of imprisonment, parole, or probation.  These statistics are even more staggering in an international perspective. While the US has only 5% of the world's population, it has almost 50% of those who are prevented from voting by a criminal conviction.  This is the product both of our broad disenfranchisement rules and our exploded criminal justice system.  The racial and ethnic inequity of felon disenfranchisement is striking.  One in eight black men are disenfranchised by these laws, a rate seven times the national average.  In some states it is one in four.

Over 60% of Americans support restoring the right to vote after release from prison, and a similar number think that the right to vote is an important factor in a person's successful reintegration after prison.  This view is shared by several law enforcement organizations.  The American Correctional Association, made up largely of professionals in the criminal justice field, has passed a resolution stating that restoring voting rights is critical to reintegration of ex-prisoners into public life: “[D]isenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders as responsible, productive citizens into the community.”

The Sentencing Project — Felony Disenfranchisement
Brennan Center for Justice — Voting After Criminal Conviction
ACLU — Felon Enfranchisement
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza — Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy


As a response to successful efforts by non-partisan and progressive organizations to register hundreds of thousands of new voters in recent years, many states are enacting restrictions on voter registration drives.These laws have a discriminatory effect as African Americans and members of Spanish-speaking households are twice as likely to be registered through a voter registration drive than whites or members of English-speaking households.

  • In Florida, strict deadlines have been established, mandating that completed registration forms must be delivered to election officials within days of being filled out.  Failure to comply with the deadlines makes a person liable for heavy fines.  This recently led the League of Women Voters of Florida to briefly suspend voter registration activities.  The law is currently not being enforced while a lawsuit between the League and the state is resolved.
  • In Ohio, voting rights groups won a lawsuit that struck down voter registration provisions that required “registration drive workers to register and to undergo training, to list detailed information on each registration form they help with and for every gatherer to turn in forms in person, not through an organizer”¦" 

Project Vote — Policy Brief on Restricting Voter Registration Drives


The right wing has lost the trust and confidence of the vast majority of the American people.  The nation is seeing a surge in new voters who are moving the country in a new direction.  To maintain their electoral viability conservatives have redoubled longstanding efforts to suppress the votes of those they think are least likely to support their failed policies. 

Progressives must fight back and protect the fundamental right to vote for every American in order to secure the equitable and prosperous future we all hope to see.  This fight requires two strategies — holding the line against attacks on the right to vote such as voter ID laws and proof of citizenship requirements (and rolling them back where applicable), and putting forth strong voter protection and anti-“caging” policies that strongly sanction attempts to prevent people from voting, such as voter deception.Progressives need to take pro-active action to expand the vote, both through protecting community-based registration drives and supporting the re-enfranchisement of ex-prisoners seeking to return to the mainstream of civic life.


Voters in many states dream of the day when their vote for president will count just as much as those of voters in the handful of battleground states such as Florida and Ohio.  Now, with the closeness of the 2008 presidential primary and the proportional delegate allocation rules that most state parties followed in the Democratic primaries, voters are getting a taste of what it would mean if every vote did matter — the result being record-breaking turnout numbers.  

If every vote counted in the November presidential elections, we could expect similar broad-based gains in voter turnout.  Voters are well aware of whether or not their votes count, and this is evidenced in polls that show wide, bi-partisan support of approximately 70% for a national popular vote. 

Studies emphasize that not only does the traditional Electoral College lead to elections narrowly focusing on a few states, but that the problem is in fact getting worse.  One result is that critical issues for non-swing states are given less focus in national debate.  An example is the civil rights movement, where the historic shift away from heavily African-American swing states has paralleled the narrowing discussion of civil rights in campaigns and the national dialogue.

The campaign to make every vote count in presidential general elections is focused on passing an interstate compact where states agree to apportion their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote (NPV).  The compact will become effective when a majority of electors are included under the agreement.  The movement to enact this compact is rapidly gaining steam in states around the country — Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Illinois have enacted the compact and it has passed 18 state legislative chambers.


The redistricting process in this country is almost completely determined by political considerations.  The result is legislative districts that often splinter communities and pack together members of each party, essentially predetermining the outcome of the general election.  Powerful computer technology now allows partisans to totally control the demographic and political composition of districts.  And in recent years we have seen some states engage in mid-census redistricting with the explicit purpose of benefiting the party in power.

Gerrymandering may help selected incumbents, but it lowers voter turnout across the board and therefore cuts the overall number of progressives likely to be elected to office. Progressive leaders can help restore responsiveness and accountability to government by supporting independent redistricting commissions established with a strong mandate to compose districts that serve the people and not politicians. This is a strategy that has even garnered the official support of the American Bar Association.

Fostering fair redistricting requires carefully constructing the redistricting commission and establishing rules such as requiring supermajority support and balancing membership between partisans and unaffiliated members. Common Cause has produced a comprehensive set of guidelines for establishing effective commissions.  Another important reform is banning mid-census redistricting.

Several states have redistricting procedures that are independent of legislators, and some have seen redistricting reforms advance in the past few years.  
  • Iowa uniquely has legislative staff draft districts under a list of statutory mandates that seek to make the process apolitical.  The state has enjoyed a high percentage of competitive elections compared with the national average.
  • Arizona voters approved a move to independent redistricting in 2000.  Their system picks commission members from a pool nominated by a pre-existing body that handles appellate court appointments. The district map is mandated to begin as a grid, and to be adjusted to meet certain requirements such as compliance with the Voting Rights Act, equal populations, and compact and contiguous districts.
  • California, Florida and Ohio have all seen recent drives to establish independent redistricting as well.
NCSL — Redistricting Commissions
NCSL — What is a Competitive District, What is a Community of Interest?
American Bar Association — Redistricting Resolution
Brookings Institution — The Competitive Problem of Voter Turnout (podcast)
Americans for Redistricting Reform
Common Cause — Redistricting Guidelines
FairVote — Redistricting Reform
League of Women Voters — Redistricting
Brennan Center for Justice — Redistricting
Campaign Legal Center — Redistricting
Arizona Redistricting Law
Legislative Guide to Iowa Redistricting


Provisional ballots are mandated by the Help America Vote Act as a way to provide fail-safe voting for people who cannot be found on the voter rolls on election day.  However, too many of these ballots are never counted and have even been referred to as "placebo voting." This problem appears to disproportionately impact minorities as research indicates that the number of provisional ballots cast and the number discarded has been higher in precincts with high concentrations of minority voters.  Most states have extremely vague rules for when a provisionally cast vote should be counted.  Well designed procedures for counting these ballots can significantly reduce the number of people who have their votes discarded.