Commentary

Lessons Unlearned: What’s dangerous about Florida’s election debacle

This article originally appeared on National Review Online on September 16, 2002.

The primary election in Florida last Tuesday seems like déjà vu all over again. A Clinton subordinate goes down to defeat amidst charges of voting irregularity and misadministration. Minority-group leaders claim disenfranchisement and blame the president’s brother. A media circus ensues.

But the media have missed a nice conservative lesson from Florida (imagine that!). Conservatives know that reforms often beget more problems leading to more reforms and more problems. So it was last Tuesday.

Many of the problems in Florida are a result of election reform itself. As you might recall, Florida responded to the 2000 debacle by quickly enacting election reform including expensive and cutting-edge voting machines. Technology, the great and the good intoned, will make everything better.

Last Tuesday, as conservatives would expect, human foibles subverted the fancy technology. Poll workers simply didn’t show up for work. Some didn’t know how to turn on the machines. A few left their polling place unattended. Other election workers simply showed good sense as the New York Times reported: “A polling place in a Lions Club hall shut down two hours before the state-mandated 9 p.m. extension — because the club bar opened at 7 p.m.”

We should expect that forcing wholesale changes in something as complicated as running an election would lead to problems. It’s surprising that we saw so few difficulties in Florida. The urge to perfect through comprehensive reform usually leads to much worse outcomes.

While Florida was rushing to buy electronic voting machines, the rest of us were learning (thanks to an MIT-Cal Tech study) that some technology already in use was more reliable. For example, marking your ballot with a pencil and counting it with an optical scanner (yes, just like a multiple-choice test in school) provides excellent reliability at a good price. Last Tuesday the District of Columbia pulled off a complicated election in which 90 percent of the electorate cast write-in votes by utilizing an optical-scanning system.

Some might see a fair irony in the Florida outcome: The party of reform, the Democrats, seems likely to be harmed by the failures of the new system: Janet Reno seems ready to take the apparent winner of the Democratic primary, Bill McBride, to court thereby touching off intraparty civil war. Count every vote, Mr. McBride!

In Washington, however, the Democrats’ Left wing loves the Florida debacle. They plan to use the state’s problems to push through an election-reform bill to their liking.

Congress is close to passing an election-reform bill. Owing largely to the efforts of Kit Bond (R., Missouri) and Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), the Senate version of the bill makes it harder to commit voter fraud. It requires that voters who register by mail show some form of identification before they vote. The Senate passed the bill 99-1 earlier this year.

Now the civil-rights groups are trying to use Florida to get rid of the ID requirement. They say having to show an ID will discourage minorities from coming to the polls. But the ID requirement addresses a real problem created by an earlier “reform,” the Motor Voter law. The Democratic congressional majority that wrote Motor Voter made sure no local election official could remove names from the registration rolls. Consequently the rolls are a mess and offer an open invitation to voting fraud.

In 2000, the public learned about a massive registration fraud perpetuated in St. Louis. With an ID requirement, American can be more certain that such chicanery doesn’t lead to subverting elections. We can have more confidence in the integrity of the vote.

The Left will also try to say Florida shows the need for national control of elections. Congressional Democrats are arguing for a vast new federal bureaucracy to oversee, regulate, and fund elections. They want to give the new agency a lot of discretion in spending money on elections and to expand the enforcement powers of the Department of Justice. In short, the Left wants in election reform what it always wants: more power in Washington and less authority in states and localities.

House Republicans led by Bob Ney (R., Ohio) rightly worry that a new election bureaucracy would mushroom over time, gaining new powers that would be exercised to advance the electoral prospects of Democrats. Certainly a new bureaucracy would strike another blow against the American tradition of local control over elections. We do not need a new federal agency that takes over the conduct of elections and tells local election officials how to do their jobs. The vast majority of them do their jobs very well, a fact that the focus on Florida obscures.

The circus in Florida shows the perils of election reform, but the Left hopes to fashion from a Miami-Dade disaster a big victory in Washington. Will Kit Bond and Bob Ney stop them?

John Samples is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Representative Government.