Time for the state to step in and run elections

By: - December 14, 2004 10:04 pm

The General Assembly will be in Raleigh before you know it, just a few weeks after the holiday season. There are plenty of contentious issues facing state lawmakers, from the lottery to the tobacco tax to video poker. The battle to finally provide decent funding for human service programs will continue, the push for a temporary two-year halt in executions continues to gain momentum. It is a long list.

But there ought to be one thing lawmakers can do without much acrimony. Fix the way the state conducts elections once and for all.

A special legislative committee looking at the issue met for the first time this week and there are some complicated questions to be answered, many that the committee may not consider. Reforms like same day registration and expanded early voting, maybe mail-in voting. Common Cause has put together an election reform agenda that is worth reading.

But one thing ought to be easy. The state needs to have one system of voting in all 100 counties. That means the same type of machines. And the State Board of Elections should have enough staff to train county election officials to use the machines. It also means machines that produce a paper trail.

It may be that the county election officials should be employees of the State Board. That was a recommendation from the head of the Carteret County Board of Elections. That’s the county that lost 4400 votes cast in November, so he knows about the current problems better than most people.

The federal government is expected to come up with new standards for voting machines that lawmakers must use in developing a new statewide system. Congress has also provided some funding for the state election system improvements in legislation that grew out of the problems in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

But funding cannot be an excuse this time. Lawmakers should spend what is needed to have a uniform system of voting machines and staff to use them in every county. The state also should not pass the financial burden on to county governments. If there is going to be a state standard, there ought to be state funding.

This is one instance that even the most rabid anti-government folks ought to have a hard time complaining about spending more money, but remarkably some are already opposing a uniform state system, hiding behind the local control mantra that is only trotted out when philosophically convenient.

Why are there now five different voting systems in North Carolina counties? Is local control more important than counting votes correctly?

Democracy doesn’t work very well if the voters lose faith in the system that counts their votes. This is no time for allowing counties to go their own way and come up with their own plan to hold elections.

This may be a tough legislative session, but restoring voters’ confidence that their ballot is accurately counted should not be too tough of a call.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066