Warning that public confidence in the nation's election system is flagging, a commission headed by former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James A. Baker III today will call for significant changes in how Americans vote, including photo IDs for all voters, verifiable paper trails for electronic voting machines and impartial administration of elections.
The report concludes that, despite changes required under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, far more must be done to restore integrity to an election system that suffers from sloppy management, treats voters differently not only from state to state but also within states, and that too often frustrates rather than encourages voters' efforts to participate in what is considered a basic American right.
The 2002 federal legislation grew out of the disputed election of 2000 and is not yet fully implemented. But the Carter-Baker commission said that even with some important changes in place, the 2004 election was marred by many of the same errors as the 2000 election. "Had the margin of victory for the  presidential contest been narrower, the lengthy dispute that followed the 2000 election could have been repeated," the report states.
Disputes over the counting of provisional ballots, the accuracy of registration lists, long lines at some polling places, timely administration of absentee ballots and questions about the security of some electronic voting machines tarnished the 2004 elections.
Many complaints came in Ohio, where President Bush narrowly defeated Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to secure his reelection victory. Although there has been no credible evidence of partisan manipulation of the election in Ohio, the criticisms there and elsewhere have renewed calls for a more uniform, trustworthy and nonpartisan election system across the country.
Commission leaders say the goal of the panel's 87 recommendations -- at an estimated cost of $1.35 billion -- is to make participation easier while also enhancing ballot integrity, a careful balancing of the long-standing argument between Democrats and Republicans in the administration of elections.
The most controversial recommendation calls for all voters to produce a standard photo identification card before being allowed to vote. The commission proposes that, by 2010, voters be required to use either the Real ID card, which Congress this spring mandated as the driver's license of the future in all states. For about 12 percent of eligible voters who do not have a driver's license, the commission says states should provide at no cost an identification card that contains the same key information.
Critics of voter ID cards say the requirement could raise privacy issues and intimidate or discourage some Americans, particularly the elderly, the poor and minorities, from participating in elections. To alleviate those concerns, the Carter-Baker commission urges states to make it easy for non-drivers to obtain such cards and seeks measures to ensure privacy and security for all voters. The commission report states that by adopting a uniform voter ID card, minorities would be better protected from shifting identification standards at individual polling places.
Still, the proposed ID card drew sharp dissent from some commissioners, among them former Senate Democratic leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). In a dissent joined by two other commissioners, Daschle likened the ID to a "modern day poll tax."
Both parties engaged in massive voter registration drives in 2004, but inaccurate voter lists produced many of the disputes on Election Day. The 2002 election reform act mandated states to oversee voter lists, but the commission said that some states are still relying too much on the counties to produce the data and called on states to take responsibility for the lists' accuracy.
The 2002 act required the use of provisional ballots for any eligible voter who shows up at a polling place but whose name is not on a registration list, but the 2004 election produced disparate standards for determining which of those ballots were counted. Alaska counted 97 percent of its provisional ballots, but Delaware counted 6 percent, according to the commission. The group recommends that states set uniform standards.
Approximately 9 million Americans move from one state to another in any given year. The commission cited news reports asserting that almost 46,000 voters from New York City were also registered in Florida. The panel recommended that the U.S. Election Assistance Commission oversee a system to allow easy sharing of state voter databases as well as requiring the use of a uniform identifier -- the voter's Social Security number -- to help eliminate duplicate registrations.
The Florida recount in 2000 etched the image of the "hanging chad" in the minds of many Americans and spurred the shift to electronic, rather than paper, ballots. But flaws in these new computerized systems have led to doubts about their accuracy. The commission calls on Congress to require that all electronic machines include the capacity for a paper trail that voters can use to verify their vote. Beyond that, to alleviate concerns that machines can be maliciously programmed or hacked, the commission calls for new standards to verify that machines are secure.
Another change designed to restore confidence in elections calls for moving to nonpartisan and independent administration of elections, in the states and on the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The integrity of the Ohio system was challenged in part because the chief election official, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, also served as the Ohio co-chairman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.
The commission also included other recommendations that have been proposed before, including free television time for political candidates, a request that broadcast networks refrain from projecting any results until the polls have closed in the 48 contiguous states and that both parties shift to a system of four regional primaries to pick their nominees.
The Commission on Federal Election Reform was created under the auspices of American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management. The group was funded by several foundations, and Robert A. Pastor of American University served as executive director. Its membership included Republicans, Democrats and independents.