In both California and Ohio, voters are expected today to defeat proposals that would put legislative districting in the hands of independent non-partisan commissions. These defeats, if they happen, should not be taken as a sign that our nation's electoral system is not broken. Instead, the message is that other elements of the electoral process need more pressing attention.
Indeed, in Ohio voters are expected to pass at least two of the reform measures before them, one that would adopt the option of early at-home voting (also called "no excuse" absentee voting), and another that would impose several new campaign finance rules, including strict contribution limits. A third reform on the ballot, which would transfer the authority to administer the state's election laws from the elected Secretary of State to an appointed nine-member board, faces an uncertain fate.
With all the talk of needed reforms after last year's presidential election, it is worth taking stock of how much - or little - has been done in the past year to fix the flaws that were exposed a year ago. About a dozen states have enacted legislation to improve their procedures for provisional voting. Most prominent on this list is Washington , which had especially acute problems in its 2004 gubernatorial election. But most states need to do much more to clarify their rules for determining when provisional ballots count as valid votes. Colorado can serve as a model for the nation on this point, having adopted in August a detailed set of administrative rules concerning the verification of provisional ballots. States that fail to follow this lead risk an electoral Katrina.
Too much legislative time and attention have been spent during the last twelve months on the topic of voter identification. Although I continue to believe that there is a middle ground on this contentious issue - my compromise would require a digital photo (at the state's expense) at time of registration but not at time of voting (because poll workers could look at the voter in person to compare with the digital photo contained in their electronic poll books) - there is no immediate need to adopt any new method of voter identification. The problems that plagued the electoral process last year, even those involving allegations of illegal votes (mostly votes by disenfranchised felons, or double votes by the same person), were not ones that would have been avoided by a requirement to produce a photo ID when voting at the polls.
Instead, improving the accuracy of voter registration databases - to eliminate the deceased and the relocated, while avoiding erroneous purges - is a much more urgent matter. Yet, while Congress in 2002 mandated that the states adopt centralized registration databases by the beginning of next year, many states will fail to meet that deadline. States like Wisconsin , which already has announced its noncompliance with this mandate, should worry much more about their inability to develop an accurate list of registered voters than about the imposition of a new photo ID requirement.
Reflecting on the relatively little progress made in improving our nation's electoral system over the last twelve months, and anticipating the need for rapidly accelerating steps before Americans return to the polls for federal elections next November, I offer this list of the ten most pressing reforms in order of priority: