Election Reform: An Analysis of Proposals and the Commission’s Recommendations for Improving America’s Election System

Chapter IV

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Commission has spent the last nine months studying the problems that occurred in the 2000 election and the ensuing reform efforts. The recommendations that follow have been proposed or supported by the organizations discussed in the preceding section. The Commission believes that their prompt implementation will lay the foundation for a more just and efficient election process.


In order for the recommendations that follow to be carried out, stronger partnerships must exist between state and federal officials. The diverse manner in which state and local governments administer elections results in unclear delineation of authority and accountability when irregularities occur. Thus, federal officials, with input from states, must establish national standards. There are several schools of thought on the extent to which the federal government should be involved in regulating state election systems. One is that there should be federal mandates requiring specific systems and processes, another is that there should be federally established minimum standards, and the third is that any standards established should be strictly voluntary (an approach favored by states).

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is the regulatory agency originally charged with enforcing the statute that governs the financing of federal elections. Its role has been expanded to include oversight of election administration. The FEC already has the authority to provide a national clearinghouse for the compilation of information and review of procedures with respect to the administration of federal elections. It also has already developed voluntary national standards for voting systems.[1]

Recommendation 1: Minimum, mandatory, and voluntary national standards must be set.

The Commission finds that some processes are either at a level of importance, or so subject to violation, that they require federal mandates. However, most provisions only require the establishment of minimum federal standards while allowing states latitude to develop and implement systems tailored to local needs. Thus, Congress should pass legislation authorizing the FEC to obtain input from states in the establishment of minimum national standards for (but not limited to): equipment, error rates, use of absentee ballots, sample ballots, list maintenance (minimum periods for list review and unacceptable error rates), identity verification, ballot counting and tabulation (including what constitutes a valid vote), recounting, voter education efforts, felon disenfranchisement, and responsibilities of states versus counties during an election. For example, counties should maintain responsibility for recruiting and training poll workers according to minimum standards established by the federal government.

Components so critical to the preservation of voting rights that they require mandatory standards include: use of provisional ballots, incorporation of ballot kick-back features in voting equipment, collection and reporting of statistics immediately following an election, provision of language assistance, and assurance of accessibility for both polling places and voting materials. It is worth noting that legislative standards already exist for language and physical accessibility, which must now be translated into state practices. Other election administration procedures not presented here, as well as implementation and tailoring of practices and materials to local voter needs, would be voluntary.

The Commission recognizes that reform must take place swiftly and therefore implores Congress to also set dates and milestones and allocate sufficient funding to the FEC for the development and delivery of national standards for election administration. Finally, federal regulations must specify which agencies have the authority to enforce compliance with each of the standards and set forth the administrative procedures and penalties for noncompliance.


Sufficient resources are vital to the implementation of nationwide election reform. States, and in turn counties, are ill equipped to pay costs associated with the implementation of new election standards and systems. Several significant proposals before Congress call for the federal government to fund elections. Election reform funding proposals in Congress range from $500 million to $2.5 billion. Proposed bills address such issues as the purchase of new voting equipment, poll worker training, and voter education.[2]

In addition to the amount of funding, a further consideration is who will have the authority to direct how the money is spent once it has been allocated. Views center on what, if any, federal guidelines or mandates should be attached to funding and how the delineation of responsibilities between state and federal governments should be set up. One view holds that federal funds lead to federal mandates. The other perspective is that federal funds for election reform must not impose any requirements on states.

Recommendation 2: Sufficient funding must be provided for election reform.

The Commission urges Congress to pass election reform legislation that is sufficient to address the array of needs of the states. Without adequate funding, there is little hope that future elections will run without as much controversy and error as found in the 2000 election, or that the commitment to reform will be more than rhetoric. With the allocation of funds to public or private entities comes the responsibility of judicious spending. States must continue to control election administration, but as discussed in the preceding recommendation, the federal government should set mandatory minimum guidelines and standards to ensure that baseline requirements for voting are being met and that resources, particularly for voting equipment and registration technologies, are being maximized.


The problems cited since the 2000 election have evoked questions about election accountability. Reform must take into account who will be responsible for ensuring that the myriad problems that occurred are remedied, that the right to vote is protected for all individuals, and that voters are able to file complaints and obtain assistance. The responsibility for the administration of elections rests largely with the states, which have great discretion to establish election procedures and delegate responsibilities to local government entities. However, someone must be held accountable for ensuring that election procedures are implemented in a nondiscriminatory manner and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

The Commission’s review identified three structures or models of state election administration.[3] In two of the models, the secretary of state is the chief election official and as such has a significant role in elections. The models identified are the “Sole” model, in which the secretary of state is the chief election officer; the “Shared” model, in which the secretary shares authority or responsibilities with another state entity; and the “Uninvolved’ model, in which the secretary has no role in the election process. The degree of a chief election official’s involvement in the administration of the election process depends on state statutes and regulations. Following is a table showing the administration model employed by each state.

Models of State Election Administration by Authority of Chief Election Official



Secretary of state

Number of states

Model of election administration





1. “Sole”: Secretary of state as chief election official is the only official responsible for election administration










2. “Shared”: Secretary of state shares responsibility with other state and local offices










3. “Uninvolved”: Secretary of state has no election duties; another state office houses the chief election official










Number of states






Source: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights analysis using Federal Election Commission, “The Administrative Structure of State Election Offices,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/tech3.htm>, and other documents.

Recommendation 3: One central high-ranking official must have sole responsibility and accountability for elections.

To ensure accountability, it is necessary to have one central, high-ranking state official responsible for overseeing the entire election process, and conforming to the national standards referenced earlier. The Commission, therefore, supports the model wherein a chief election official, not necessarily the secretary of state, has sole responsibility for the management of elections, as is currently the case with most states (28). States set up under this model should have a designated staff or office within that of the chief election official, which provides information, guidance, and training to local officials. That office would also manage all local election-related data such as registration files and election statistics. The chief election official should ultimately be accountable for any failures in the system. The goals of such an administrative structure are to ensure accountability, but also non-partisanship. Therefore, chief election officials in each state should be subject to the same ethical standards as the sitting judiciary in the state’s highest court. In addition, standards for the behavior of chief election officials could be established as a condition for receipt of federal grant monies.


The existing voting rights laws, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, and the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, must be enforced judiciously and strictly. One critical element to voting rights enforcement is on-site monitoring of polling places to ensure that procedures are followed and that every eligible citizen is afforded the right to vote. The current system, whereby the Department of Justice is responsible for monitoring elections on a request basis or based on past violations, has proven inadequate.

Recommendation 4: Laws protecting voting rights must be strictly enforced.

Efforts to strengthen enforcement at the federal and state levels must be made. The right to vote must be given top priority by all election officials. Enforcement of voting rights legislation should become a cooperative effort between all levels of government, the nongovernment sector, and the public.

The federal government’s monitoring function before and on Election Day must be expanded. Specifically, the Justice Department should be allocated sufficient funds to initiate a proactive discrimination prevention program. The Justice Department should take steps to identify, before an election, jurisdictions where there are large increases in voter registration, particularly in minority communities, so that it can watch for potential problems and be better prepared to vindicate any voting rights violations that occur. In addition, Congress should provide funding sufficient to enable the Justice Department to (1) purchase appropriate technology and equipment to monitor registration and purge procedures; (2) provide attorneys who would assist voters during the election and thereafter with pursuing allegations of discrimination or irregularities and with activating the complaint/appeals process; and (3) assist local precincts with monitoring on short notice. The federal government should also establish standard operating procedures and requirements for monitors.


For the election process to work there must be government accountability at the federal, state, and local levels for ensuring that the right to vote is not impeded. Election officials should enforce the laws that protect the right to vote by implementing appropriate election systems, as well as procedures for recourse when the system fails. However, neither state nor county entities appear to have procedures for internally monitoring and documenting voting irregularities or complaints. States do not consistently use internal reporting systems or complaints processing to monitor the quality of local elections. Even in states that provide avenues for filing complaints to a state elections office, the complaints are usually referred back to the county or local official, who may be responsible for the problem in the first place, for investigation.

While some voters who had complaints in the 2000 election did contact an elections office or official, many did not file complaints with a government entity. In many instances, complaints were filed through community advocacy organizations such as the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the NAACP, and the ACLU. While these groups receive complaints and represent litigants, they have no federal or state enforcement role. Acceptance of a case usually depends on the issue, the number of complainants involved, the strength of the case, and the likelihood of success.

Recommendation 5: Procedures for processing complaints must be improved.

The Commission believes complaint filing and resolution should take place outside the authority of the chief election official’s office, or the offices of other state or local election officials, so individuals are not forced to file a grievance with the same entity that committed the alleged violation. Further, it is important that the complaint process not be driven from the local level, so that local election officials can be held accountable for their actions and the actions of their poll workers.

The Commission thus recommends that the U.S. attorney’s office in each state be designated as the entity responsible for complaint resolution. Procedures for responding to complaints must be clearly defined to include strategies for investigation, timelines, and guidelines for available remedies. U.S. attorneys should be statutorily required to investigate complaints within an appropriate timeframe and provide written justification to voters for the dismissal of a complaint. Simultaneously, oversight of state procedures to ensure voting fairness should rest with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. The division should perform random administrative audits of precincts’ voting procedures to ensure they are in compliance with federal legislation and provide legal consultation to U.S. attorneys as needed.

In addition, to facilitate the complaint process, the instructions for filing a grievance must be readily available and highly publicized. Brochures explaining voters’ rights and complaint forms should be made available at all polling sites and on the Internet, and a statewide toll-free complaint hotline should be established in each state. The complaint process itself should be simple enough so as not to discourage voters from utilizing this as an option.


States do not have uniform standards to follow for collecting election data. Some states currently provide precinct information immediately after an election, such as analyses of ballots, how many were spoiled, what equipment was used, and how many poll workers were available to assist with problems. Other states compile such information months after an election, while still others do not compile it at all. Lack of information makes it hard for individuals to file a complaint, much less take legal action. This issue must be addressed in order for private rights of action to be maximized and voter rights protected, as well as to make states and precincts accountable for their election systems.

Recommendation 6: Election data must be uniformly tracked and reported.

The Commission believes that to facilitate both individual rights of action and federally initiated legal challenges, it is necessary that appropriate election data be collected uniformly across precincts in every state. To identify disparities in precinct election systems, states should collect data on such precinct characteristics as the equipment and types of ballots used; the availability of communications systems; number of poll workers; poll worker training programs; polling place hours; ballot availability in non-English languages and Braille; accessibility features used to assist voters with disabilities and non-English speakers; and criteria used for purging names from registration lists. These data should be made available for public use immediately following an election.

From an enforcement standpoint, it is also important that states be required to collect and report data on voter turnout and spoiled ballots (overvotes and undervotes) by county. This will enable both state and federal investigators to identify election irregularities. This is a long-term measure that would make precincts more accountable for ensuring that voting equipment is adequate, ballots are not confusing, and Election Day procedures are implemented appropriately.

As the officer responsible for election administration, the chief election official should be responsible for collecting election data, which should be readily available to constituents. Information about how to obtain data should be available on the Internet and in brochures available at polling places. Standards for the information to be collected should be established at the federal level, through the FEC, so that state-by-state comparisons and analyses can be performed. In addition, there should be a central repository established for all election data to facilitate the public’s ability to obtain information.


State election officials are responsible for year-round activities targeted toward protecting voting rights, as well as ensuring that local officials have appropriate resources to conduct elections efficiently. Local election officials must ensure the smooth operation of voter registration and the polls so that voters, irrespective of race, national origin, ethnicity, gender, age, disability, or religion, have the opportunity to vote and have their vote counted.

Recommendation 7: Election checklists must be established.

Because of the many tasks required to ensure the smooth operation of elections, the Commission recommends that state election officials work with the federal government to develop minimum requirements for a standard checklist that would be tailored by states to accommodate local needs, for every function that should be completed before, during, and after an election. The list would include all tasks that must be performed by state and local election officials, including supervisors of elections and precinct workers. The list must also serve as an accountability tool, requiring specific designation of duties to individuals, and signatures that certify the accomplishment of each task.

A checklist would be useful because it would help ensure that long enough before an election, the necessary systems and procedures were in order. It would enable those responsible to identify problems in advance and correct them. Attaching timelines to actions would also ensure that appropriate steps are taken far enough in advance to correct problems. A checklist would also provide the opportunity for those responsible to verify to local, state, and federal officials, as well as the public, that they have prepared appropriately. A sample checklist for state election officials follows. Other similar lists would be developed for each person who has responsibility in the election process, from top-level election officials to poll workers. The following list is offered as a conceptual model for discussion and is not intended be an exhaustive list of the contents of a checklist.

Sample Checklist for State Election Officials


Verification of Task Completion


Tasks to be Completed

Completion Dates


Signature of Responsible Official (Upon Completion)



General Civil Rights Compliance




1.       Verify that state and local election procedures are in compliance with federal civil and voting rights laws, including Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.




2.       Ensure that counties have adequate funding for

a.        required voting technology, including precinct computers to access voter registration lists and additional telephone lines for Election Day communication between the precinct and supervisors of elections;

b.       appropriate staffing for election precincts;

c.        additional staff and training required for departments of motor vehicles to provide the additional services mandated by the National Voter Registration Act;

d.       appropriate voter education on voting processes, including initiatives for first-time voters, and for special needs of residents in their respective counties, and for formats, such as public service announcements and advertisements, that are best designed to reach residents with limited English proficiency or other special needs;

e.        effective training for poll workers and other election workers and officials, including training on providing required assistance to individuals with special needs.




3.       Adopt appropriate administrative rules that provide clear guidance and oversight responsibilities for election officials at every level to ensure proper implementation of procedures that protect the voting rights of all citizens.




4.       Work to pass and implement any state laws, funding, and/or administrative rules needed to provide former felons restoration of their civil rights upon satisfaction of their sentences.




5.       Provide technical assistance to local election officials in developing estimates of expected election turnout by precinct.




6.       Establish and clearly publicize statewide complaint procedures.




Accessibility Issues




7.       Establish minimum standards for polling places to ensure that they are fully accessible for individuals with disabilities and that persons with special needs receive proper language assistance in exercising their right to vote.




8.       Study and collect information on the accessibility of polling places throughout the state.




9.       Develop legislation or promulgate administrative rules to require that supervisors of elections consult with people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency, and their advocacy and affected community groups to ensure that ballots are readily understood by voters; that voting systems are accessible to them; and that poll workers provide adequate assistance.




Voter Registration and List Maintenance




10.    Establish a system for monitoring list maintenance activities to ensure that voter registration lists do not discriminate and are in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. In particular, examine for compliance the methods of and criteria for compiling the exclusion lists, matching algorithms for identifying duplicates, error rates for purge lists, the burden placed on the voter to void the purging of his or her name from these lists, and the method by which private entities are involved with list maintenance.




11.    Provide clear guidance on how supervisors of elections verify the accuracy of information used to purge a voter from the voting file. Require timely notification of persons whose names will be purged from the lists and provision for an appeal process.




12.    Mandate through legislation and/or the appropriate promulgation of administrative rules that the state’s department of motor vehicles forward completed voter registration applications to the supervisor of elections office of the new county of residence for the voter.




13.    Ensure that driver’s license examiners are trained to inform applicants that any change in their driver’s license files does not automatically update their voter registration information or that completion of registration applications does not guarantee the appearance of their names on the voter rolls in their county of residence.




Verification of Voter Registration on Election Day




14.    Establish a monitoring system to ensure that polling places have adequate technological support (i.e., sufficient telephone systems or computers) to communicate with election officials or to access data to resolve voter registration issues on Election Day; or work to establish procedures that minimize or eliminate the need to contact election supervisors to resolve voter registration issues on Election Day.




The Use of Affidavits and Provisional Ballots




15.    Promulgate appropriate administrative rules regarding the use of affidavits and provisional ballots when eligibility to vote is in question. The rules should provide voters access to provisional ballots in every polling place where the voter executes an appropriate affidavit attesting that he or she is legally entitled to vote on Election Day; and provide the voter an immediate right to appeal the discarding of a ballot prior to the canvassing of the election or counting of ballots.




16.    For votes cast by affidavit or provisional ballot, provide a method of distinguishing such ballots from other ballots; establish a mechanism for verification to capture and annul any fraudulent votes, as well as to notify the voter of the reason for the rejection of the ballot; and provide the voter with an immediate right to appeal the discarding of any ballot or the refusal of any opportunity to vote prior to the final canvassing of the election.




17.    Require each supervisor of elections to submit a report providing detailed information on specific steps that ensure that voters are given adequate notice about opportunities and requirements relating to voting by affidavit or provisional ballot. The report should also include information about the training of poll workers and other election officials to implement these provisions.




Voting Systems, Equipment, and Ballots




18.    Work to enact legislation requiring the use of voting technology that maximizes the chances that a voter will have his or her vote count.




19.    Institute an effective monitoring system to ensure uniform implementation of voting systems throughout the state. In particular, the system should ensure that uniformity exists with respect to uncounted or rejected votes throughout the state, for example through handling spoiled ballots appropriately, allowing for a precinct count, or providing an opportunity for the voter to correct his/her ballot.




20.    Ensure through legislation or administrative rulemaking that ballot designs are as uniform and simple as possible for all state residents, including individuals with disabilities and those with language assistance needs.




Training for Election Officials and Poll Workers




21.    Monitor technical assistance, education, and training to ensure that supervisors of elections, other election officials, and poll workers are receiving uniform interpretation of election laws.




22.    Provide technical assistance to supervisors of elections to promote uniformity in poll worker training materials and provide guidance on state voting regulations, as well as to provide funding for supplemental training.




23.    Establish certification requirements for poll workers to ensure that poll workers are recently instructed in the basics of election law and procedures and in protecting voters’ rights.




24.    Ensure that voter education and training for poll workers and other election workers and officials has information on all appropriate policies and procedures, including, but not limited to, general voting rights, a voter’s rights while at the polling place, how the voter should use the selected voting technology, and the proper procedures to resolve issues that arise at the polling place on Election Day.





Despite improvements in voter registration management brought on with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, there were still numerous complaints of erroneous registration lists, names falsely being purged, and delays in adding new names to the lists. In many states, voters are not provided the option to vote via provisional ballot until verification of their voting eligibility is proven, and in other states where this alternative exists, voters are unaware of this right. In fact, the National Voter Registration Act requires states to let voters cast a ballot if they have moved within a jurisdiction in which they were previously registered. However, at the time of the 2000 election, only 19 states used provisional ballots.

Recommendation 8: Provisional ballots must be provided to voters on Election Day.

The Commission has stressed the importance of the right to vote, and certainly that right should not be impeded by avoidable clerical or administrative errors, or confusion about complicated registration procedures. Therefore, the Commission recommends that every state be required to provide provisional ballots to all voters who wish to contest their absence from voter registration lists or who have recently moved to a new jurisdiction. In addition, provisional ballots should be available to voters at any polling place, irrespective of the precinct in which the voter resides. Ballots should be sent to the home jurisdiction for tallying. Verification of the eligibility of provisional ballot voters should be performed immediately after an election (within three days, for example) so that either the vote can be counted or the voter can be given the opportunity to appeal the decision not to count his or her ballot.


The early release of election results, compounded by premature speculation by the media, resulted in confusion over the winner and dissuasion of voters who had not yet cast a ballot. Because of the closeness of the 2000 election, the effect was magnified. In addition, many questions arose about the certification of results and whether election officials were to cease counting and recounting ballots. While the media cannot be forced to withhold projections, election officials can be prohibited from making early declarations about an election’s outcome, and provisions can be put in place to ensure adequate time to resolve emerging issues that might affect election results.

Recommendation 9: A 21-day certification period must be established for election results.

Congress should establish a mandatory waiting period after elections before certification to include the counting of provisional, absentee, and overseas ballots and to allow for appropriate resolution of any voting discrepancies or disputes (such as those that surfaced with the butterfly ballot in the 2000 Florida election). The Commission recommends that states allow 21 days after an election to perform the necessary administrative and counting duties associated with elections, as well as any necessary recounts. This would also give individuals who have a complaint the opportunity to have some resolution and perhaps cast a post-election ballot, and would allow time for those who cast provisional votes to appeal a decision not to count that vote. State election officials should be prohibited from “calling” an election until such a time when all votes have been counted, discrepancies resolved, and voter complaints and appeals addressed. States should develop clear guidelines and/or modify existing regulations for the conduct of election certification, giving consideration to all possible scenarios.


Under the National Voter Registration Act states may impose deadlines for registration and other requirements that can impede voting opportunities. The following table shows that about half the states and the District of Columbia require people to register to vote 29 to 31 days before an election. In 13 states citizens can register 16 to 28 days before an election. Six states permit registration as few as 10 to 15 days before an election. Only six states provide for voter registration at the polls on Election Day and are thereby exempt from the National Voter Registration Act. North Dakota is also exempt—it requires no voter registration.[4]

Deadlines for Voter Registration by State





Days before an election


Number of states

No registration



On Election Day













Source: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights analysis using Federal Election Commission, “Frequently Asked Questions About Voter Registration,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/FAQVOTERREG.htm> (Jan. 4, 2001).

Recommendation 10: Voter registration deadlines must be set later.

The Commission supports the recommendations by several working groups that states develop improved registration technologies that would enable real-time statewide registration of voters. Implementation of such a data system would eliminate the need for early registration deadlines and at the same time reduce susceptibility to data entry errors. Deadlines could be set as late as a week before an election and, in less populated states, even later. The Commission recommends that states with early registration deadlines examine the procedures of those states that allow Election Day registration to determine if similar systems can be implemented.


The hours that polls close may be an issue for some voters. Most states—43 states and the District of Columbia—close their polls between 7 and 8 p.m. More variation occurs in the hours polls open. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia open the polls between 6 and 7 a.m. Five states have at least some polls that do not open until 8 a.m. Another seven states have some polls that open after 8 a.m.

Opening polls late and closing them early may not be a hardship in states that make Election Day a holiday. A dozen states have a holiday, 10 of which let state employees take off the full day. The two states where some polls open at noon—Rhode Island and Montana—have a holiday and give state employees a day off work so that they can vote.[5]

The needs of voters, and hence polling place hours, vary from district to district based on population characteristics. For example, extended polling hours might be necessary in precincts with large numbers of voters who do shift work, whereas in precincts with large retired populations this might not be as critical. In Alabama, for instance, 29 out of 67 counties open at 8 a.m. and close at 6 p.m. This gives voters only a 10-hour window in which to cast their ballots, two hours less than the 12-hour window most voters get.[6]

Hours Polls Open and Close by State









Closing hours



Opening hours


6 p.m.


7- 8 p.m.


9 p.m.


Varies across the state

Number of states

6 - 7 a.m.

HI, IN,* KY*

AK, AZ, AR, CA, CO, CT, DE, DC, FL,* GA, IL, KS,* LA, MD, MA, MI,* MN, MS, MO, NV, NJ, NM, NC, OH, OK, OR,* PA, SC, TX,* UT, VA, WA, WV, WY









By 8 a.m. in all areas

NE,* SD,* TN* (7-8 a.m.); ID* (8 a.m.)

AL (8 a.m. to 6-8 p.m.)








After 8 a.m. in some areas

ME, VT (6-10 a.m.); WI (7-9 a.m.); MT, RI (7 a.m.-12n); NH (by 11 a.m.)

ND* (7- 9 a.m. to 7- 9 p.m.)








Number of states







* States spanning more than one time zone. See “Standard Time Around the World,” <http://www.circ.Uab.edu/nypldr/1time/ standard.htm> (Feb. 14, 2001).

Source: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights analysis using Federal Election Commission, “Frequently Asked Questions About Election Day and Voting Procedures,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/faqvdayeprocedures.htm>.

Differences in time zones present another challenge, as election results from one part of the country (or even a state in some cases) may be revealed before polls have closed in another region, thereby affecting voter turnout. There are two ways to resolve this issue: either staggered polling hours (i.e., open polls earlier in the West and close them later in the East) or the creation of a national holiday for elections.

Recommendation 11: Uniform nationwide voting hours must be established.

The Commission supports the notion of making Election Day a national holiday, perhaps Veterans Day, to enable more voters to cast a ballot and to solve logistical problems related to hiring poll workers and utilizing accessible buildings. The Commission also supports the creation of uniform polling hours (for example, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time) within states to avoid potential voter confusion, and to simplify the task of election administration.


As has been discussed, the allocation of federal funds for election reform evokes questions about what the proper role of the federal government should be and what responsibilities should rest with the states. What is evident, however, is that states have very different needs based on the sophistication of existing election systems and their unique populations. Expecting one voting system to be efficiently used in every state may be unfeasible, but some degree of uniformity and minimum standards are necessary to ensure that states prioritize voting equally and that citizens in every state can participate fully in the process.

Recommendation 12: Minimum national standards must be set for voting equipment.

Congress should establish statutory authority for the FEC to develop national voting system standards and operational guidelines in conjunction with representatives from state election administrations. The standards should be broad enough to accommodate the different needs of states. However, at the very least, federal guidelines should dictate that voting systems meet minimum standards. For example, while not requiring states to purchase specific voting machines from specific vendors, standard requirements for how the equipment processes a vote should be specified at the federal level. Thus, regardless of whether touch screen or optical scan voting equipment is used, a voter would receive immediate notice of any circumstance that may lead to his or her vote not being counted and be allowed the opportunity to correct it. The standards should also include lists of acceptable technologies that improve accessibility for language minorities and people with disabilities.


Credentials that voters must present in order to vote are also determined by the states, which may impose such requirements to guard against fraud. Requirements for identification are viewed by some as necessary to prevent fraud, and by others as a barrier that may intimidate voters. The table below shows whether or not states require and verify a voter’s signature to vote. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia require a voter’s signature, but of these only 16 verify the signatures. Four states that require a person’s signature do some verification. Twenty states that require signatures do not verify them.[7]

Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia do not require identification to vote. For example, a person is asked to state his or her name and address and is allowed to vote once that information is verified against a registration list. Fourteen states require voter identification, although West Virginia requires it only if it is the first election after the voter registered by mail. Another seven states may require voter identification.[8]

Taken together, the table shows that most states require voter signatures, but no voter identification. However, 12 states require both a signature and identification; Virginia and Connecticut require identification, but no signature; and seven states require neither voter identification nor a signature.

States Requiring Voter Credentials to Vote









Voter identification required


of states

Voter’s signature










Sometimes verified






Not verified





Not required





Number of states






* WV requires identification if it is the first election after the person registered by mail.

Source: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights analysis using Federal Election Commission, “Frequently Asked Questions About Election Day and Voting Procedures,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/faqvdayeprocedures.htm>.

Recommendation 13: Guidelines for voter identification requirements must be set.

The Commission acknowledges the interest states have in verifying voter identification, either through signature or photo ID. This is an example of when one set of federal guidelines should be developed that all states follow for acceptable forms of identification. It would be incumbent upon the states then to ensure that poll workers follow procedures precisely and uniformly. There was some indication during the 2000 election that minority voters and new citizens were more likely to be asked to show identification than nonminority voters, and in some instances multiple forms of ID were requested. Election officials and poll monitors must ensure that this practice is ceased in future elections and that all voters are asked for the same identification. Further, in the event that an individual cannot present the necessary identification, he or she should be allowed to vote using a provisional ballot until identification and eligibility can be verified.


In 1975, Congress amended the Voting Rights Act to include protection of the voting rights of individuals whose primary language is one other than English.[9] Where written languages are commonly used, jurisdictions are required to provide written election materials in those languages. Written and oral assistance must be made available throughout the voting process, from registration to ballot casting. In short, assistance must be available if 5 percent (or 10,000 individuals) of a jurisdiction’s voting-age population are members of a single language minority group and are limited English proficient.[10]

Several states have also enacted their own laws requiring some form of language assistance during the voting process. Those states include California, New Jersey, Texas, North Dakota, and Colorado. The state provisions range in requirements from simply allowing non-English-speaking voters to have assistance upon request, to the more comprehensive approach of requiring that assistance be available in all jurisdictions where 3 percent of the voting population lacks sufficient English skills.[11]

The Department of Justice’s Voting Section has authority to use federal observers to monitor designated areas for compliance with the Voting Rights Act. According to the Section’s special counsel, the majority of the jurisdictions monitored in the 2000 election involved language minority issues. For example, observers were monitoring compliance in New York and California for Chinese-speaking voters, in New Jersey for Spanish-speaking voters, and in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Mississippi for American Indian language speakers.[12]

Language assistance requirements are expected to change as a result of the 2000 census, with some jurisdictions being required to provide ballots and other voting materials in additional languages. For example, Los Angeles may have to print ballots in nine languages instead of the seven currently required, and New York City may have to add Korean to its English, Spanish, and Chinese requirements.[13] This would invariably add costs to the existing election budgets, but might also inspire a reevaluation of the voting equipment used. Touch screen voting, for instance, makes it easier to provide multilingual ballots and instructions, and therefore might be a viable alternative for communities with changing populations.

Recommendation 14: Federal language assistance standards must be set and compliance must be monitored.

Given the changing demographics of the nation, the Commission recommends that the federal government set minimum requirements for the vehicles used to accommodate the language needs of voters. For example, the federal government must establish proficiency standards for bilingual poll workers and translation services used at both registration and polling sites. In addition, quality assurance procedures must be put in place in states with large language minority populations to ensure that language-appropriate ballots, voting instructions, technical assistance materials, and complaint forms are readily available and free from translation errors or confusing language. Federal funds allocated for election reform should be sufficient to facilitate the implementation of these provisions. In addition, when developing national standards for voting technology, the federal government should include guidelines for the selection of machines that can be readily programmed to meet the needs of diverse populations.

The federal government’s role in ensuring language assistance should not be limited to the establishment of standards for the provision of such assistance. It should also carefully monitor and track the success of states in carrying out their mandated responsibilities. In addition to actually implementing language accommodations, states should be required to submit regular reports to the Justice Department on the provisions implemented, utilization rates of bilingual materials, and outcomes of their efforts, such as whether more language minority voters participated in the election process or whether bilingual voter education services were effective. The federal government could then track compliance and at the same time provide recommendations to improve the provision of language assistance.


In the 2000 election, more than 14 million disabled Americans voted, a number up 3 million from 1996. This promising increase is due, in large part, to the efforts of grassroots organizations. Still, only 40 percent of people with disabilities vote, and they make up one-fourth of all non-voters.[14] It is speculated that people with disabilities do not vote because they have lower registration rates, they have higher rates of isolation and poverty, and most importantly, many polling places are simply not accessible.[15]

According to the Federal Election Commission, the greatest problems with inaccessibility occur in sparsely populated rural areas and mountainous areas where buildings are old and alternative sites are not readily available.[16] The FEC estimates that 20,000 polling places are not accessible to individuals with disabilities, but others estimate that this number is closer to 40,000.[17] Another issue at the forefront of the disability rights movement is that of ballot secrecy. Some 8 million Americans cannot see well enough to read the print of a ballot and another 2 million, due to physical limitations, cannot hold a pen. For these individuals who require assistance in the voting booth, secrecy is not an option.

Several pieces of existing legislation pertain to the accessibility of the election process to people with disabilities, including Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,[18] Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973,[19] the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984,[20] and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.[21] Despite federal legislation, a lack of commitment on the part of some state and local election officials to ensure accessibility is still evident. There are many exceptions to compliance with federal legislation, which have become loopholes for state compliance, resulting in large numbers of inaccessible sites. Further, the matter of defining the criteria for polling place accessibility is left to the states, with wide discretion for perceived compliance.

Recommendation 15: Uniform standards for accessibility must be set and compliance must be monitored.

The Commission strongly urges the federal government to develop uniform standards for voting accessibility to improve enforcement of the existing laws. State election officials must be given the responsibility for ensuring that all polling places are accessible to voters with disabilities before the 2002 election. Many election boards cite the costs involved in making polling places accessible as the prohibitive factor. Therefore, the Commission recommends that the federal government allocate funds to states specifically to improve accessibility. Funding should be allocated for Braille ballots, TDD devices, wheelchair accessible voting booths, and to run pilot programs that use Internet voting programmed for use by disabled voters. States should also be required to work with the FEC to adopt what are currently voluntary standards for accessibility.

As was discussed in the previous recommendation pertaining to language assistance, the federal government’s role in ensuring accessibility should include consistent monitoring and strict enforcement of established standards. It should also track the success of states in carrying out their mandated responsibilities. States should be required to report to the federal government, either through the FEC or a legislatively established panel, the provisions implemented and outcomes of their efforts. The federal government could then track compliance and at the same time provide recommendations to improve accessibility.


An estimated 3.9 million Americans have lost the ability to vote because of a felony conviction. Of those, 1.4 million are African American men; 13 percent of the black adult male population are disenfranchised, a rate seven times the national average.[22] The effect of felon disenfranchisement laws on black voters is more profound in some states than others. For example, in Florida, 31 percent of all black men are permanently disenfranchised. In five other states (Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming) one in four black men is permanently disenfranchised. It is speculated that if the current trend in incarceration continues, 3 in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised in their lifetime.[23]

Whether or not felons are allowed to vote is subject to state discretion. The table below summarizes state disenfranchisement policies, as in place during the 2000 election, based on the status of offenders. Every state but two—Maine and Vermont—denied the right to vote to offenders serving a prison sentence. Most states also denied the right to vote to individuals on probation and parole. Another nine states denied the right to vote to all ex-felons, even after they had completed their sentences. Five other states disenfranchised certain ex-felons (for example, after a second felony) or disenfranchised them for a specified period of time after completing their sentences.[24]

In some states a felon’s right to vote is restored once the individual has served his or her sentence, but most states have placed restrictions on the ability of ex-prisoners to have their voting rights reinstated. In eight states, a pardon or order from the governor is required; in two states action from the pardon or parole board is necessary.[25] Obtaining a full pardon or other such measure is often difficult,[26] and many convicted felons are not made aware of these states’ reinstatement policies.

State Felon Disenfranchisement Laws





States that disenfranchise

Number of states







On probation






On parole







AL, AZ (2nd felony), DE (5 years), FL, IA, KY,

MD (2nd felony), MS, NV, NM, TN (pre-1986), VA, WA (pre-1984), WY



* Includes the District of Columbia

Source: The Sentencing Project, “Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States” (updated December 2000), <http://www.sentencingproject.org/news>.

After the 2000 election, many state election reform bills included provisions to restore the right to vote to convicted felons. For example, in the state of Connecticut, beginning January 1, 2002, an estimated 36,000 probationers will regain the right to vote. Beginning on March 19, 2001, a simplified process for reinstating voting rights to ex-felons in the state of Kentucky was instituted. New Mexico recently enacted a law restoring the voting rights of ex-felons who have completed all phases of their sentence, including probation and parole. A move to revoke the voting rights of prisoners in Maine was rejected by the state legislature.

Other states, however, have not worked toward protecting the right to vote for felons. For instance, in Florida, a bill designed to restore the voting rights of nonviolent ex-felons a year after serving their sentences and for violent offenders five years after completing their sentences died in committee. In Mississippi, some politicians have proposed expansion of the state’s prohibition on voting from 10 types of felony offenses to all felony offenses.

Recommendation 16: Voting rights of former convicted felons must be restored.

The Commission believes that to integrate ex-felons fully into society, they should have their voting rights restored. Therefore, all states should follow the lead of the states with existing legislation to reinstate voting privileges to felons upon completion of their sentences and parole. As an exercise to facilitate reintegration into society, individuals on probation should be given the right to vote.


Many civil rights groups and grassroots organizations have dedicated resources to developing large-scale voter education programs and registration drives. As increased voter turnout indicates, these groups have been somewhat successful in getting voters to the polls, but ensuring that voters know how to correctly cast a vote has proven more elusive. Further, it appears that many voters are not aware of their voting rights. Given the varied voting procedures from state to state, and even among jurisdictions within states, the need for systematic voter education and outreach is critical. State and local governments do not uniformly or consistently make legal or administrative information on the voting process available to the public. Nor do they adequately inform voters of where and how to file complaints or seek redress when complaints go unanswered.

Recommendation 17: Requirements for public education must be established.

Improving voter education and outreach should be a collaborative effort between all levels of government and nongovernment organizations. Congress should give the FEC the authority to develop, with input from the states, minimum standards for acceptable forms of voter education material (such as printed brochures, television and radio announcements, magazine, billboard, and other media advertising, and Internet applications), as well as the frequency with which such material should be disseminated to voters. The federal government should also establish minimum requirements for the production and distribution of material that informs voters of where and how to file complaints of voting rights violations and options that exist for the voter when his or her complaint is ignored.

Information on where one can find copies of voting laws in full should be included in material developed locally, thus empowering the voter to recognize and stand up for his or her rights. Outreach at the local level should also include the circulation of sample ballots before an election and technology demonstrations at public forums. This latter recommendation would serve a dual purpose of enabling voters the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the technology used in their jurisdiction and allowing election officials to detect errors or common usage problems in advance.


It is noteworthy that on the test administered by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to immigrants seeking citizenship the answer to the question, “What is the most important right granted American citizens?” is “the right to vote.”[27] Yet INS’ inability to expeditiously process immigrant applications for citizenship and the lack of registration assistance and outreach provided to these new voters have had a detrimental effect on their ability to participate in the democratic process. Few organizations have addressed this issue, but two have identified problems faced by new Americans: (1) the drawn-out process of citizenship itself hinders the ability to vote, and (2) once citizenship is obtained, little information is provided on how to exercise this right.

Despite the general lack of attention on voting rights issues directly affecting new Americans, there have been some admirable, if somewhat isolated, efforts. This review uncovered at least one instance in which individuals being sworn in as citizens are provided with a voter registration card. Specifically, in West Palm Beach, Florida (and possibly in other parts of the nation), individuals becoming U.S. citizens are automatically given the opportunity to register to vote.[28] Though difficulty immigrants may encounter in obtaining citizenship may remain, at least in West Palm Beach those who are successful are automatically provided with the opportunity to exercise one of the basic rights of a democracy, the right to vote.

Recommendation 18: Reform measures must assist new Americans in obtaining the right to vote.

Facilitating voter registration for new U.S. citizens should be a priority in election reform. Immigration offices should provide assistance to individuals in filling out voter registration material. Another way to promptly register new citizens would be to provide a class on voting, at the end of which everyone would be appropriately registered. At a minimum, INS should provide information on voting in the citizenship application packet. Additionally, INS, recognizing the importance of voting to the democratic process, should take immediate steps to streamline and expedite naturalization so that new citizens may vote sooner.


The recommendations presented here are based on a review of reports produced by national committees, task forces, and organizations, as well as the Commission’s own research. While the Commission encourages initiative and innovation in implementing election reform measures, it cautions both state and federal governments to remain cognizant of and always vigilant in their responsibilities to uphold existing voting rights laws. Any reform measures implemented should be checked against the laws to (1) ensure that they are in compliance, and (2) avoid those that would have a potential outcome that violates existing voting rights statutes. Keeping those parameters in mind, the Commission urges the federal government and the states to push forward swiftly in the election reform process so that by the next election cycle, the problems faced in 2000 will not resurface.

[1] 2 U.S.C. § s438(a)(10). See also Federal Election Commission, “History of Voting System Standards Program (as of November 1998),” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/vsshst.htm>.

[2] See, e.g., H.R. 1170 sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), H.R. 1482 sponsored by Rep. James R. Langevin (D-RI), S. 479 sponsored by Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), S. 565 sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), and S. 953 sponsored by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY).

[3] Commission staff reviewed and analyzed the political status, duties, and responsibilities of the secretary of state as well as the election administration structure of each state. See Federal Election Commission, “The Administration and Structure of State Election Offices,” Jan. 31, 2001, <http://www.fec.gov/pages/tech3.htm>. Commission staff also collected and reviewed more than 100 state documents containing this information.

[4] See Federal Election Commission, “Frequently Asked Questions About Voter Registration,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/faqvoterreg.htm>. 

[5] See Federal Election Commission, “Frequently Asked Questions About Election Day and Voting Procedures,” <http://www.fec.gov/pages/faqvdayeprocedures.htm> (hereafter cited as FEC, “FAQ About Election Day”).

[6] Gary Fields and Jennifer Davit, “In Selma, A Landmark of Civil Rights, Voting Can Still Be a Struggle,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 18, 2000, p. A1.

[7] FEC, “FAQ About Election Day.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Language provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, can be found in 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973aa-1a and 1973b(f)(4). In 1992 the language provisions were extended for 15 years.

[10] U.S. General Accounting Office, Bilingual Voting Assistance: Assistance Provided and Costs, May 1997.

[11] Ibid., pp. 15–16.

[12] Gaye Tenoso, special counsel, Department of Justice, Voting Section, telephone conversation, Jan. 18, 2001. The results of these observations are not made public because they are used for DOJ’s enforcement efforts.

[13] Katharine Q. Seelye, “A California County Touches Future of Voting,” The New York Times, Feb. 12, 2001.

[14] National Commission on Election Standards and Reform, National Association of Counties, meeting in Washington, DC, Jan. 10, 2001, statement of Jim Dickson, vice president, National Organization on Disability (hereafter cited as NCESR meeting, Dickson statement).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Federal Election Commission, Polling Place Accessibility in the 1992 General Election, n.d., p. 1.

[17] NCESR meeting, Dickson statement.

[18] 42 U.S.C. § 1973aa-6.

[19] 29 U.S.C. §§ 791 et seq.

[20] 42 U.S.C. § 1973ee-ee-6.

[21] 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131–12165 (1994).

[22] The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States, October 1998 (hereafter cited as the Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote).

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.; Federal Election Commission, “State Voter Registration Requirements,” Jan. 4, 2001, <www.fec.gov/pages/Voteinst/htm>.

[25] The Sentencing Project, Losing the Vote, p. 5.

[26] Virginia E. Hench, “The Death of Voting Rights: The Legal Disenfranchisement of Minority Voters,” Case Western Reserve Law Review, vol. 48 (Summer 1998), p. 767.

[27] Andrea Georgsson, “For Women, Ballot Mightier Than Pen,” The Houston Chronicle, Aug. 27, 2001, p. 20.

[28] Carol Rose, “Long Sojourn Ends with Pledge,” Cox News Service, Aug. 26, 2001.