On October 29, 2002, President George W. Bush signed the Help America Vote Act into law. It was a widely supported bill, passing the Senate 92-2 and the House 362-63. With its nineteenth anniversary passing us by, it is a good time to look back and reflect upon the law’s provisions and how they matter today.
The first provision of the law was a fund dedicated to every state for the purpose of replacing their punch card voting or lever voting machines. This change fundamentally altered the way we vote. Punch cards were at the heart of the contentious 2000 presidential election, and their contribution to the uncertainty meant immediate replacement. Lever voting machines were being phased out by the companies that made them, leaving few replacements for an aging set of crucial machines. The provisions in this law hastened our transition to electronic voting machines, which have become ubiquitous today. Three hundred twenty-five million dollars were set aside for this purpose.
Another three hundred twenty-five million dollars were set aside for additional purposes, including:
- improving the administration of elections for Federal office
- educating voters concerning voting procedures, voting rights, and voting technology
- training election officials, poll workers, and election volunteers
- improving the accessibility and quantity of polling places, including providing physical access for individuals with disabilities, providing nonvisual access for individuals with visual impairments, and providing assistance to Native Americans, Alaska Native citizens, and to individuals with limited proficiency in the English language
- establishing toll-free telephone hotlines that voters may use to report possible voting fraud and voting rights violations, to obtain general election information, and to access information on their own voter registration status; among others.
While these matters were more intangible to our actual system, they were no less important in ensuring the smoothest possible elections. Of those provisions, a specific few deserve attention. The Act set basic requirements for voting machines, such as having alternate language settings and an option to correct the ballot before it is submitted. It also set aside millions of dollars to give those with disabilities greater access to voting. It introduced guidelines to provisional voting and a requirement to post election information, such as a sample ballot and instructions on how to vote, at every polling place.
The Act also created the Election Assistance Commission. The Commission, which still exists today, is responsible for the testing and certification of voting hardware and software. It also disburses federal funding for voting and produces training materials, along with news bulletins.
There are certainly more exciting pieces of voting legislation than the Help America Vote Act. The bipartisan Act serves more to make minor changes than sweeping ones, and perhaps that explains its relative anonymity. Anonymity, however, is not relevance. Nearly two decades on, the Help America Vote Act has branches that have spread across America’s voting system. How we vote today would not be the same without it.