Ailing elections need swiftest ballot cure

Overdue: A House measure addressing the election debacle of 2000 seems best hope for change.

November 26, 2001

REP. STENY H. Hoyer concedes his election reform bill is not perfect, but the Maryland Democrat says it's a critically important first step.

He's clearly right. And the step must be taken as soon as possible.

The logistics of reform -- buying new equipment, for example -- will take time. Some say no real improvements can be expected until 2004. It's not soon enough, but sooner may not be possible.

Mr. Hoyer and his Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, say the usual ideological obstacles stand in the way of a measure that would impose tougher federal standards on laggard states. If standards set in a Senate bill survive, they predict, the reform effort will die in a House overly devoted to states' rights.

Deplorable but democracy. Giant steps even in the face of crisis often must give way to political reality. Thus, the more palatable Hoyer-Ney bill should be put on the proverbial fast track. The reasons are all too obvious:

One national study holds that between 4 million and 6 million Americans voted in vain during the last presidential election -- or were denied the opportunity because election procedures were helter-skelter and machinery was pathetically inadequate.

The Hoyer-Ney bill would require statewide voter registration lists -- something Maryland already has done. It would also set standards for what constitutes a vote. Provisional voting would be allowed, pending a check of the voter's challenged eligibility. And voters would be able to correct inadvertent errors -- as voters can do now in Baltimore elections. Small grants are made available under the bill to train college and high school students to serve as election judges -- and to bring young people into the system.

Again, the bill does not go far enough to protect the rights of minorities, who were, it appears, the main victims of voting system failure in 2000. Civil rights groups and some members of Congress want federal legislation that would override state election laws and end what they see as discriminatory actions by local officials.

The Hoyer-Ney bill authorizes $400 million to buy up the kind of punch-card voting machines that were such a joke in Florida. Another $2.25 billion would be provided over the next three years to help states buy new equipment and improve their election systems. These activities would be supervised by a bipartisan federal Election Assistance Commission.

The gentleman from Southern Maryland recently lost a bid to become the House minority whip, but his leadership on this bill shows he won't squander his skill and seniority. Few if any bits of legislation pending this year will be more important to this republic than the one bearing Mr. Hoyer's name.

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