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A Return to Maryland: the Lessons of Success

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Message Mary Howe Kiraly
A Return to Maryland: the Lessons of Success
Mary Howe Kiraly

Annapolis: On Monday, April 9, the 2007, at the stroke of midnight, the Maryland General Assembly performed a miracle that had been unattainable for 4 years. It turned our lemon of a voting system into a potential jewel. Legislators passed bills that will transform our paperless touchscreen voting machines into paper ballots/optical scan technology in 2010. This transition will have consequences for the nation.

Advocates in Maryland have learned a few things that may be applicable to the national effort. Some of what was learned did not come easily and some of it may be less than welcome news because it challenges basic concepts about grassroots activism.

Most of us come to advocacy on election reform out of anger about national election outcomes that cannot be verified, about exit polls that are skewed and cannot be confirmed, about local candidates that lose elections under suspicious circumstances, or about the takeover of the election process by corporations. What we are angry about is pervasive secrecy. Secrecy surrounds the election process and does everything to protect the process and nothing to protect the votes that went in or the results that come out. So we decide that this is really important for American democracy and we make a commitment to reform the way we cast and count votes.

Then we try to change the election system in this country, and we are faced very quickly with a set of legislative processes that appear to be...well, secret. We find out that democracy is a messy process that has to be entered in certain ways at certain points and that makes us... well, angry all over again. Because we know exactly what needs to be done. These legislators should pay attention because they represent us. And money certainly should not be the issue.

We begin by doing what activists do well. We form discussion groups, we build websites, and we send mass emails. We share all the studies, all the theories, and all the gossip and pretty soon, because we reinforce one another, we begin to think that if everyone just knew what we knew- then WE WIN! This process produces a great deal of heat, which is helpful in the beginning. It raises awareness of the issue by educating citizens, media, and legislators. But election reform is a relay and not a sprint. The actions that help in the beginning will not push reform legislation over the finish line. That requires light.

To win, we have to convince the people who keep getting elected by the American election system that we have a problem. And that's a tricky proposition.

Basically there are three ways to do this. The first is to have them lose an election that they were slated to win. We have learned from experience that this approach does not work as well or as quickly as it should. The second is from the bottom: by having enough of their constituents engaged on this issue. It requires reaching a lot of folks. The third is from the top: by having the leadership convinced that we have a problem. Leadership is difficult to reach; but they can move a piece of legislation with a few key conversations and a personal commitment to get the job done.

So how do we reach the local constituents, or the senior leadership, who can move a key legislator or committee chair, who is not our legislator, to do what needs to be done? Who do we know?

One way is by taking advantage of the expertise of well-established national organizations that have taken a stand in support of voter-verified, independently confirm-able, election outcomes- and have local chapters. Maryland succeeded this year because there was a coalition of just such organizations.

What these organizations offer is tactical insight, legislative contacts, political savvy, and people on the ground nearly daily in the state capitols and in Washington, D.C. One of the strengths of these organizations is that they advocate on a variety of issues, so in conversation on one piece of legislation with a key staffer or representative, they can check in too on our issue. One of the problems with this approach is that national organizations advocate on a variety of issues, so our concern can conflict with advocacy on behalf of another key constituency.

Take disability-access provisions for voting legislation. One of the most striking and hard-to-accomplish features of HAVA has been the requirement for equal access to a privately cast secret ballot for all voters. This HAVA requirement, which can be met most easily with DREs, conflicts with advocates' conviction that DREs are not only bad, they are evil.

But DREs have given some voters, with profound special needs, their first experience of voting in private. These voters tell compelling personal stories of how, after decades of dependence on a spouse or parent, they are able to vote independently. For them that means voting without the presence of a third party, accompanied by an election judge from each political party to confirm that the ballot was marked as the voter intended. Touchscreen voting has been a godsend to these voters.

Voters with special needs are often our natural allies on progressive issues. But many of these voters feel abandoned by the progressive movement, which fails to understand how important voting independence and privacy is to one's sense of citizenship. However, a number of national progressive organizations champion the rights of citizens with disabilities to equal access. These are the very organizations we need to get voting reform accomplished. We need these organizations and we need to embrace these voters if we are going to succeed. We succeed when they succeed in having guarantees that they will continue to have access to a private and secret ballot.

So in 2007, Maryland had a Coalition of five major public interest organizations actively supporting the effort to pass legislation- this year. These organizations made a commitment to include carefully negotiated disability-access language. Having taken this stand, and been successful, Maryland advocates will have work to do, before implementation, to see that accessible voting systems are demonstrated, and the concerns of these voters are met.

Maryland's coalition also had volunteers who did excellent cost analyses. All Legislators care about the bottom line- even progressive ones. It is very difficult to be successful in advocacy without knowing something about the budget process that parallels the legislative one. For activists to succeed, we need to learn much more than we would have thought possible, about legislative processes.

One especially productive activity is to get on the Internet and find out what the state or county budget looks like. How much is currently spent on election administration? What are the cost savings resulting from moving away from dollar-guzzling DREs? This information can be more helpful than all the discussions about the conspiracies surrounding computerized voting. Whether or not we are able to convince legislators that votes are disappearing, we can certainly demonstrate that tax dollars are going down a rabbit hole.

A good place to start is The Brennan Center Report: The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Security, Accessibility, Usability, and Cost, Lawrence Norden Project Director.

In Maryland, we were able to show that the nineteen counties that had used optical scan voting systems, before being forced to switch to touchscreen, saw their cost of elections administration increase 2.5 times under the new system. There is power in those numbers.

Another important component is to turn down the tone in discussion groups. Many EI advocates firmly believe that the programmers, political operatives, and election officials, with access to the voting system, are perfectly capable of manipulating an election outcome. It does not occur to us, however, that these tech-savvy folks are also perfectly capable of learning what we are saying on our "private" discussion groups- and willing to pass it along.

We won the debate about the need for election reform in Maryland because the grassroots had raised concerns about computerized voting beginning in 2002. But it could not stop there. We won the legislative battle to overturn the current voting system because we had the assistance of organizations that knew how to cooperate and compromise. We learned how to talk about legislators' concerns: cost, cost, cost. We took the advice that was offered to us by the leadership when they understood that we would not gossip, we would advocate within the process, and we would say thank you publicly when we received support.
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Mary Howe Kiraly is a voting activist living in Maryland.
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