Officials Doubt Election Holiday Would Have Impact

By: - April 18, 2001 12:00 am

As Maryland nears approval of a universal statewide voting system, top election officials in two western states are skeptical of proposals to make presidential election day a national holiday.  

Los Angeles County registrar Conny McCormack who oversees the largest election district in the country said last week that experiments with weekend voting indicate a national day off will probably not bring more Americans to the polls or get more qualified workers at the polls.

Speaking at a public hearing in California of the National Commission on Election Reform, a group chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, McCormack said people with too much time on their hands usually place voting at the bottom of their to-do lists.

“I’m ambivalent about it. On holidays and Saturdays, voting is not the top thing on most people’s lists,” McCormack said.

McCormack’s district, which spans Los Angeles and its sprawling suburbs, houses nearly 10 million people, making even local elections there larger than 42 statewide contests. The registrar said flexible early voting and pay hikes for poll workers will do much more to solve the problems of low turnout and untrained election officials than a day off work and school.

Oregon Secretary of State William Bradbury, Oregon’s secretary of state, expressed a similar lack of enthusiasm even cynicism when asked about his thoughts about making Election Day a federal holiday.

“I’m sure Oregonians would love a holiday. Because they wouldn’t spend it voting,” he said.

Foundations and universities fund the commission, which was created in January in the wake of the Florida presidential election debacle. Last week’s hearing at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., was the second leg of a four-stop tour by the panel to gather ideas about ways to reform elections. Commission members include a group of well-known ex-politicians, advisors, pundits and scholars.

The group says it will release its report of recommended changes in September.

Meantime, Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is expected to sign legislation this week that will put his state on track to have uniform, touch-screen voting systems in place before voters go to the polls in Nov. 2002.

Lawmakers passed bills early this month to create a statewide voter registration system and to allow the use of provisional ballots for voters whose names do not appear on registration lists. The legislation will also upgrade the state’s system from a mishmash of voting systems to the uniform use of state-of-the-art touch-screen machines.

While the bills lack exact dollar figures, they outlines a 50-50 split between Maryland’s treasury and local jurisdictions. If federal dollars become available, the bill calls for a 50-25-25 split, with the state sharing a quarter of the program’s cost with local jurisdictions.

Washington D.C. will scrap its punch cards in time for local elections in September. District of Columbia officials last week announced a $1 million program to switch from the antiquated card system to precinct-level optical scan machines that allow voters to fix mistakes at polling places.

“At this point, we will now have to begin voter education to make sure the seniors know we are changing the system that we have used for the past 20 years,” said Bill O’Field, a spokesman for the District’s Board of Elections.

In other recent developments:

  • Florida lawmakers indicated their preference for optical scanning machines as a major stumbling block to establishing a uniform election system in the Sunshine State appeared to have been cleared. The Miami Herald reported last Thursday (4/12) that intense efforts by well-connected lobbyists for election machine manufacturers has made precinct-level optical scan machines the likely choice for Florida. It has also made Senate President John McKay a supporter of the program. McKay, a Republican, balked at using state money to upgrade the Sunshine State’s election systems before the 2001 legislative session began. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris in February released a plan to move the state to optical scan machines by 2002 and touch-screen systems by 2004. Cost estimates range between $20 million and $35 million to lease the machines.
  • Voters in Los Angeles last week had no Florida-like troubles with hanging or pregnant chads at municipal elections in the county. McCormack said voters wary of uncountable votes jammed their styluses into punch cards, often breaking the equipment to ensure a solid punch. A voter education campaign that included the catchy slogan, “Got Chad?” encouraged the enthusiastic voting. 

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