It is naïve to expect that Congress can quickly enact election law reforms that do more good than harm. Exhortations for prompt, rather than wise, action only increase the likelihood that the legislation will be worthless or counterproductive.
Indeed, recent federal laws already have made matters worse. The so-called Motor Voter law addressed a non-problem (the voter registration process was never that hard), but it helped create a far more serious problem. Citizens are now registered in multiple jurisdictions at the same time, and numerous non-citizens and felons who are ineligible to vote are registered. What is worse, the federal law makes it very difficult for states to purge duplicate names and ineligible voters from their voting rolls.
Fraud is a much more serious issue for Congress to focus on than accidentally spoiled ballots. Authoritative studies show that equipment errors are randomly distributed and do not affect the poor or minorities more than anyone else. Decisions about voting equipment are best left to the states, and no amount of federal money or congressional prodding will prevent spoiled ballots when voters fail to follow simple directions.
But fraud undermines the legitimacy of democratic institutions when it is practiced by wrongdoers who try to change election outcomes. Non-citizen and ineligible felon voting also has plagued recent elections. While some bureaucratic errors are inevitable and tend to cancel each other out, intentional fraud and illegal voting can provide the margin of victory in a close contest. Congress should establish some minimum safeguards to prevent fraud and illegal voting, such as requiring proof of eligibility at the time of registration and adequate identification at the time of voting. At the very least, it should amend the Motor Voter law to allow state officials to take reasonable steps to clean up their voting rolls and prevent illegal voting.
It's easy for Congress to tax us more, give some of that money back to the states, and declare the problem solved. But until Congress studies the real problems, there is no hope that it will make our electoral process measurably better.
Todd Gaziano is Director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally published in USA Today (05/11/01)