On January 6th, 2005, members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives gathered in the House chamber. Vice President Dick Cheney read the results of the Electoral College votes state by state. When he came to Ohio, Representative Stephanie Tubbs Jones stood up and objected. To officially object to the certification of votes, Congresswoman Jones needed the support of at least one senator. She had mine. It was the second formal congressional challenge to a presidential election since 1877.
Later that day, the Senate debated our challenge to the election. Many of my Democratic colleagues—including Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Harry Reid—joined me in speaking out about the serious flaws in our electoral voting system, particularly in Ohio. The Senate voted to overrule my objection, but I firmly believe that standing up was the right thing to do. My goal was not to challenge the legitimacy of the election results but rather to spotlight a voting system that remains dangerously broken, in need of repair, and out of step with our values as a nation.
Nothing defines America more than our democratic ideals. The young men and women in our military are fighting and dying to give people around the globe the right to make their voices heard and their votes count. As we sacrifice to bring democracy abroad, our credibility depends on fulfilling its promises at home. Right now, there remains a troubling gap between the ideals of our democracy and the realities of our voting system.
The 2000 election was a wake-up call for Congress and the American people, exposing a number of serious problems with the accuracy and fairness of our elections. In 2002, Congress responded by passing the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). This act established federal requirements for key aspects of our voting system, including provisional ballots and voter information, registration, and identification. It was a step forward in fixing our broken electoral process, but Congress did not go far enough.
As we saw in the 2004 election, many problems remain, from long lines to voter intimidation. This is why I joined Senator Clinton in introducing the Count Every Vote Act (CEVA). CEVA would ensure that all eligible Americans have the chance to vote, the right to vote, and the confidence that their votes will count.
First, CEVA removes many of the obstacles that keep voters from casting their ballots. In 2004, there were too few voting machines and too few poll workers. In Ohio, voters stood for hours in the rain, including students at Kenyon College who waited for ten hours because there were only two machines for 1,300 voters. In the Columbus area, it is estimated that up to 10,000 frustrated voters left polling places before ever reaching the ballot box. This problem was especially acute in poor and predominately African American communities. We will never know how many people left without voting, forced to choose between standing for hours in line and jeopardizing their children or jobs. That is unacceptable.
To give people the time to vote and encourage qualified volunteers to become poll workers, CEVA would make Election Day a public federal holiday. It would require states to allow early voting, thereby making voting more convenient and reducing long lines on Election Day. Under the act, the Election Assistance Commission also would establish mandatory standards for the number of voting machines and poll workers at each polling place.
Second, CEVA would help ensure that no eligible voter is disenfranchised. Felons in jail or on parole should never be allowed to vote. Yet, while most states, including my own state of California, restore voting rights for ex-offenders who have completed their sentences, fourteen states refuse to do so. In those states, including Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee, the vast majority of disenfranchised ex-offenders are African American men. We saw an additional problem in Florida in 2000, where large numbers of African American voters were erroneously purged from the voting rolls simply because their names were similar to those of ex-offenders. CEVA would permit ex-offenders to vote once they have fully completed their sentences, give the Election Assistance Commission the power to set standards for purging names from voter registration lists, and require states to provide notice of all removed names.
Third, CEVA would help guarantee that every vote is accurately counted. During the most recent presidential election, electronic voting machines in Ohio proved untrustworthy. In Mahoney County, voters reported that when they pushed for Kerry, the voting machines registered for Bush. In Franklin County, a voting machine in one precinct awarded 4,258 extra votes to George Bush, even though only 638 people had voted. This particular problem was fixed, but we do not know how many other votes were potentially miscounted.
CEVA mandates that paper records be used to verify all votes, including during a recount. If there is a challenge, 2 percent of all polling places or precincts in a state must undergo a mandatory recount. At least one machine per precinct must provide for paper, audio, and pictorial verification and accommodate the disabled, language minorities, and voters who cannot read their ballot. During the 2004 election, there was also controversy over provisional ballots in Ohio, far too many of which were not counted correctly. In Hamilton County, for example, approximately 1,100 provisional ballots were not counted because they were cast in the wrong precinct. Why? In 40 percent of those cases, the voter had found the correct polling place but was directed to the wrong table by poll workers. Often, provisional ballots are not counted because of the multiple standards within a given state. CEVA would require provisional ballots to be counted statewide.
The last two elections spotlighted many serious threats to our most fundamental right as citizens in a democracy. When some Americans are deprived of their right to vote, all of us are imperiled, and all of us must stand up and be counted. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” If we want to help ensure that every vote is counted in our next election and every contest to follow, we must enact CEVA now. It is a critical step in ensuring that America always stands not only as the world’s most powerful symbol of democracy, but also as its best example.
After serving ten years in the House of Representatives, Barbara Boxer is commencing her third term as senator from California. In the Senate, she currently serves as Democratic chief deputy whip.