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October 29, 2006
The Condescension Of HAVA

George Will has another excellent column today, this time on the paternalistic and condescending nature of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Enacted in 2002 amid a panic induced by one close presidential election -- the second such election in 208 years, spread across 50 states -- HAVA took voting-infrastructure decisions away from the states and spent billions of dollars on the notion that the world's oldest representative democracy had citizens that were just too stupid to vote correctly:

For over two centuries before Congress passed HAVA, Americans voted. Really. Unlike today, those who were elected -- Clay, Webster, Lincoln and lesser lights -- often were more complex and sophisticated than the voting machinery.

Using pencils to make marks on paper and later using machines to punch holes in paper ballots, voters -- without federal help; imagine -- caused Congresses and presidents to come and go. States ran elections; some ran them better than others. Some ballots have been better designed than others, as have some voting machines. Most have been adequate. The gross defects of American voting practices were laws that established or permitted discrimination and other abuses. Tardily, but emphatically, those laws were changed and other abuses were halted.

Then came 2000 and Florida and the 36-day lawyers' scrum about George W. Bush's 537-vote margin of victory. In response to which, Congress passed HAVA, which in 2006 may produce fresh confirmation of the prudential axiom that the pursuit of the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Citizenship used to assume certain responsibilities. Citizens had the duty to inform themselves of the issues and the candidates before casting their votes, and they had the duty to understand the procedures in the voting booth before attempting to do so. When they failed to do either, citizens understood that any failure to have their choices recorded belonged to them and not the system that managed to record 98% of all other votes with no problem.

Then came Florida in 2000. Instead of sticking with both the law and the tradition of citizen responsibility, an army of activists descended on the state determined to rescue a handful of voters from their own incompetence. They professed to be able to determine voter intent by analyzing the tenacity of little chips of paper in clinging to the ballots -- chads which got further dislodged by the handling of the ballots. After this debacle proved fruitless, do-gooders decided to install systems that would prove foolproof.

Four years later, HAVA has turned a highly-successful voting infrastructure into a nightmare. Maryland voters may have to abandon the voting booth altogether and use absentee ballots to avoid the malfunctining electronic voting machines. Ohio found out that their electronic voting machine security codes have been exposed, meaning that someone could theoretically hack into the machines and change the votes. And in the aftermath of the Florida recounts, the geniuses that pushed these machines through HAVA never planned on paper receipts for recounts in close elections.

Not coincidentally, HAVA came from the same session of Congress (107th) that produced the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, otherwise known as the McCain-Feingold Act. The BCRA also represented an effort to reform the political system by treating voters as incapable little children, despite 200 years of proof to the contrary. The BCRA continues to do damage to free political speech, although not as spectacularly as HAVA has done to the credibility of our elections. The 107th Congress may go down in history as one of the most damaging to our freedoms in modern history.

HAVA needs to be repealed, and the money withdrawn, except to those states who now have to junk their new and unreliable machines. States should make their own decisions and spend their own money on voting infrastructure. They cannot do as badly as the federal government has done with HAVA. My suggestion, which I have made repeatedly here at CQ, is to use the optical-scan ballots that voters complete by hand and have read before they leave the polling station. Voters then know that their ballots will be successfully counted, or they have the opportunity to fix them before they leave.

Beware reformers, and beware decisions made in a panic. HAVA and BCRA are two great examples of both.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 29, 2006 8:03 AM

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The Condescension Of HAVA George Will has another excellent column today, this time on the paternalistic and condescending nature of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Enacted in 2002 amid a panic induced by one close presidential election -- the [Read More]

Tracked on October 29, 2006 12:15 PM


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