WASHINGTON -- Former President Jimmy Carter, who as a candidate used to say he wanted a government "as good as the American people," continues to hold his unshakeable faith in them, judging from the report of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, of which he is a co-chairman.
Mr. Carter yesterday presented the report to President Bush. It recommends the federal government provide up to $400 million on a matching basis to the 50 states on a "conditionality" basis to cope with the problems that surfaced in November's Florida fiasco. In other words, they will get the money provided they spend it to finance recommended election reforms designed improve voting machinery and practices.
The report specifically does not mandate compliance by the states, but instead relies on what Mr. Carter at a news conference here called the "patriotism" of local officials to do what's right. He said he could not conceive of any state secretary of state in charge of elections not wanting to institute the reforms. As a man of faith, this is certainly an article of faith in light of the transparently biased behavior of the notorious Katherine Harris in Florida last fall.
What was called a "significant minority" of the commission, led by a Harvard Law professor and special counsel to President Bill Clinton, Chris Edley, dissented on "conditionality," though not on the full report. "Will the carrot be enough?" Mr. Edley asked.
He indelicately suggested that "some states may decline to take the bribe" because they have to match it with state funds or it might not be enough to overcome their "objections to all the strings and inevitable regulations" attached. Besides, he wrote, the feds are famously slow in enforcing conditions fastened to taxpayers' money.
The commission did come up with some good ideas, such as making Election Day a national holiday, but its recommendation that Veterans Day simply be shifted to serve the purpose drew immediate gripes from the vets' lobby. The report also wisely called for statewide voter registration hooked up to computers so no voter would be unjustly turned away, and for making felons eligible to vote again once they're done their time and served any parole.
It proposed provisional voting, whereby anyone who claimed the right could proceed, with his or her ballot segregated until proof of eligibility was confirmed. But the report stopped short of recommending or denouncing any voting mechanism, even the despised butterflies of West Palm Beach.
Former Republican Sen. Slade Gorton of Washington, a vice chairman, marveled at how the diverse commission could agree on the report. "We were not designated to re-fight Florida," he said, "but we were enlightened by Florida." One of the chief enlightenments, however, was not touched by the commission -- the Electoral College, which again demonstrated that it's possible for the candidate most voters say they want as president to come in second.
The alibi Mr. Gorton gave was that the commission members had "no special expertise" on the subject, observing that "people have been talking about the Constitution for years." Yet the report did appear to defend the Electoral College by calling it "a delicate compromise (between the large and small states) that solved one of the most difficult problems of the Constitutional Convention and did so in a way that satisfied even the most anti-Fedralist critics of the new document."
Commission member John Seigenthaler, the longtime editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean, dissented from that one, observing that "it states the Founders got it right at the Constitutional Convention by creating the Electoral College. For all their wisdom and vision, the Founders got it wrong" in rejecting a Bill of Rights at first and in originally making the presidential runner-up vice president. Both these mistakes were corrected, he noted, and "public opinion polls tell us the Founders got it wrong with the Electoral College."
The big question is whether Congress will vote the $400 million to help the states fix their election systems. Mr. Carter reported that President Bush told him it was a "modest" proposal but didn't quite endorse it. Which is not surprising, since the Bush budget doesn't have a nickel in it for election reform. Perhaps his "patriotism" will lead him to change his mind.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau.