Electoral reforms are far off

April 27, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- More than four months after the Florida election fiasco that set off an outcry for reform, the House Administration Committee opened hearings the other day with one of the stars of the debacle, Florida Secretary of State Kathryn Harris, among the chief witnesses. In case you care, her makeup was tastefully and sparingly applied.

She was greeted by both Democratic and Republican members with courtesy, with only the barest references to her role in the drama that eventually made George W. Bush president. Fellow Republican Rep. John Mica of Florida praised her for her "courage" and for her "fair and consistent" deliberations to uphold the Constitution and the "respect" she showed "for our state constitutional offices," one of which she holds.

Not a word was mentioned about the propriety of Ms. Harris as Florida's chief elections officer having functioned during the presidential campaign as one of Mr. Bush's state co-chairs. Nothing was said about her having rejected Democratic demands that she recuse herself from the recount procedure, as her boss, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said he would do as brother of the candidate.

The closest anyone came to raising the whole messy business was when Democratic Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania dared to mention that many voters don't believe that Mr. Bush was elected fairly. He suggested that if this were a different country, and the election was viewed "from afar," it would not have been seen as a fair one.

But, as the Republicans like to remind us, the election is over and Mr. Bush has the job. The business before the committee was not to post-mortem Ms. Harris' questionable role. Rather, it was to draw on her wisdom and that of other assembled state secretaries of state on what must be done to see that the Florida experience doesn't happen again.

Ms. Harris joined colleagues from Arkansas, Kansas, New Mexico and Ohio in saying, basically, that the states need up-to-date voting machines and vote-counting equipment, uniform standards for what constitutes a valid vote and equal access to the polls for every eligible voter. And that they need Congress to come up with much of the money it will take to ensure that everybody's vote is counted.

The Florida secretary of state/Bush co-chair concluded by asking the committee to join her "in affirming a simple but powerful truth -- that democracy ultimately depends on the faith and confidence of the people." It was quite an observation coming from the woman whose rigid adherence to state procedures, even when invited by the state Supreme Court to allow a little slack on recount deadlines, ensured the demise of Al Gore.

One thing Ms. Harris did say surely will boost voter faith and confidence, especially in Palm Beach County where the so-called butterfly ballots allegedly led many Jewish voters to vote for Pat Buchanan. She pledged that "beginning next year, never again will the punch-card ballot be used to decide elections in the state of Florida." In other words, no more chads and dimples.

The committee members were glad to hear that, especially Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, who has already introduced legislation to help the states replace all existing punch-card systems by the next congressional elections in 2002. He called election reform "the civil rights issue in the 107th Congress" and said action should come in the next few months before Congress goes home for a summer recess.

Only one secretary of state, Ron Thornburgh of Kansas, a Republican, had anything at all to say about the Electoral College, which made Mr. Bush the narrow winner although he lost the popular vote by more than half a million ballots.

He said it "did its job and there was a peaceful transfer of power," and that's true enough. The committee did not see fit to consider whether, in light of that not inconsiderable popular-vote victory for Mr. Gore, some thought should be given to closing that particular college.

So don't look for any radical solution to avoiding another Florida fiasco there or in some other state in 2004.

The best we can hope for is tinkering with the machinery -- and maybe not much of that unless Mr. Bush asks for the required money in his budget and Congress snaps out of its reform snooze.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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