It did not feature much in the way of butterfly ballots, hanging chads or protracted Supreme Court fights. But the first hearing yesterday of the Commission on Federal Election Reform made it clear that the 2004 election was not without problems.
Former president Jimmy Carter and ex-secretary of state James A. Baker III, who co-chair the commission, invited a dozen experts to American University to recommend ways to improve the nation's voting system. The commission will consider those suggestions, along with others expected at a second hearing in June, and submit its own recommendations to Congress.
Those recommendations are not expected until September, which is a good thing because the academics, advocacy group leaders and politicians invited to testify yesterday provided a dizzying list of electoral problems that might make some wonder how any ballots were counted in November.
They told of absentee ballots that were never delivered. Of voters who were arbitrarily struck from the rolls. Of confusing and poorly designed ballots. Of long lines at the polls. Of inadequate funds to train poll workers.
Some complained that polls are frequently inaccessible to wheelchairs. That bilingual assistance is lacking. That there are too few voting machines, especially in minority communities.
Others asked whether partisan officials ought to be in charge of elections. Whether the country needs a voting holiday to improve turnout. Whether the nation should adopt uniform poll closing times so elections called in the East do not depress turnout in the West. Whether photo identifications ought to be required to vote. And whether to create a "paper trail" for electronic voting machines.
"Years of inattention and, yes, complacency at all levels of government have given us an election management system that is not up to the task," said Kay Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters. "We must look more closely at the next steps that need to be taken to bring our election system back to health."
Much of the testimony was anecdotal, with many bemoaning the lack of hard evidence that would indicate how widespread the problems are. Many disagreed on what ought to be done. But nearly all said the system can and should be improved before the next election.
"In the 2004 presidential election, the United States came much closer to electoral meltdown, violence in the streets and constitutional crisis than most people realize," professor Richard Hasen of Loyola Law School said in his written comments. "Less than a 2 percent swing among Ohio voters -- about 100,000 voters -- toward Democratic candidate for president John Kerry and away from incumbent Republican President Bush would have placed the Ohio -- and national -- election for president well within the 'margin of litigation,' and it would have gotten ugly very quickly."
Among others who testified were: Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause; Arturo Vargas, director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials; Gracia Hillman, chair of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission; and Ron Thornburgh, Kansas's secretary of state.
Baker and Carter gave few indications as to what sorts of issues they are likely to address. But both said they are looking to ones amenable to bipartisan solutions.
"The overall concern is that 40 percent of the American people don't vote," Carter said. "Secondly, that there's a great deal of doubt in our country about the integrity of the electoral process. Those are the two basic issues. What can we do to address them? Obviously we want to have more access by Americans to the voting booth. And secondly, we want to make sure that the electoral process has integrity -- that it is not shot through with fraud."
Carter and Baker were clear on what they do not plan to address: how congressional districts are drawn, whether the electoral college ought to be revamped or abolished and whether the District ought to be able to vote in Congress.
"We should not take on the really volatile issues with respect to which we have no reasonable chance of success," Baker said. "There are plenty of other issues for us to consider."