Getting to work on voting reform

January 31, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Now that George W. Bush is safely and apparently very comfortably ensconced behind his desk in the Oval Office, members of both parties in Congress are responsibly moving the post-election debate to consideration of election reforms.

Legislation already introduced or pending focuses on everything from improving the mechanics of voting to revising or even eliminating the Electoral College.

At the same time, post-mortems are continuing on what happened in Florida on Nov. 7 and thereafter, and what might have happened had all the ballots been counted. These studies, by various newspapers, are being decried by all those who want voters who are disturbed about an election decided in the Supreme Court rather than the ballot box to "get over it."

Both exercises are warranted in light of the Florida fiasco -- not to undo the constitutionally valid election of Mr. Bush, but to learn from the horrid experience and to find ways by which justice is served without justices deciding a matter that rightfully should be left in the hands of voters.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert said at the White House the other day he would create a select House committee to study election reforms. Already introduced in the Senate in December was a bipartisan proposal by Republican Sam Brownback of Kansas and Democrat Charles E. Schumer of New York that would authorize $10 million for a study by the Federal Election Commission into existing voting methods, including the nightmarish punch-card ballots that created havoc in Florida in the Bush-Gore race.

The study would be a guide to the states in picking new systems, but there would be no federal mandate for a single system. The bill would create a $250 million matching grant in the first year that would be an incentive to the states, which often in the past have put voting reform far down the list of their budget priorities.

The scheme, Mr. Brownback and Mr. Schumer say, will give states "the expertise and the means to modernize their voting systems without leading us into a constitutional battle over whether the federal government has the right to dictate how we should vote." They want the FEC study completed by the end of this year for some implementation in time for the 2002 congressional elections and completion by the presidential election in 2004.

Other legislation includes a bipartisan bill by Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Rep. Billy Tauzin of Louisiana that would require uniform poll closing times. Still others propose electoral votes allocated by congressional district, as now is done in Maine and Nebraska, rather than the winner-take-all method used in the other 48 states.

A member of the House Constitution Subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts, says he would favor mandating changes in voting methods but fears states would balk. He will sponsor legislation in this session, he says, to get rid of the Electoral College.

As for the press recounts in Florida, it's easy to see why the Republicans and other Bush supporters want them abandoned or discredited. In almost every case, they suggest strongly that such recounts would have given Florida's 25 electoral votes to Al Gore, and hence the presidency.

One review by the Palm Beach Post of 10,600 uncounted votes in strongly Democratic Miami-Dade County found, however, that Mr. Bush would have picked up six more votes than Mr. Gore, leading some to conclude that he would have survived a larger recount.

But the Palm Beach Post, now recounting ballots in its own county, has completed reviewing the disputed undervotes -- those thrown out by machine count but challenged by visual observation in the original manual recount. According to metro editor Bill Rose, overseeing the exercise, when all "dimpled" ballots were counted as the Gore camp wanted, the former vice president picked up about 680 votes, more than enough in that recount alone to overcome Mr. Bush's certified statewide lead of 537. The newspaper is now completing a recount of the overvotes, which have more than one vote indicated on them.

This and similar exercises are not, obviously, going to change the outcome of the election. But they may reinforce the efforts of those members of Congress in both parties to make the case for urgent reform of voting machinery and methods -- as well as underscoring the capacity for injustice to the majority of voters in retaining the Electoral College.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.

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