Election reform left hanging like a chad

July 22, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - Less than four months before voters go to the polls again across the country, Congress has not yet acted on the election reforms that are so badly needed. The fiasco that was the 2000 election demonstrated that.

Although the House overwhelmingly (362-63) endorsed a modest updating of election apparatus and practices in December and the Senate did the same in April (99-1), the differences in the two versions of the legislation still must be resolved by a House-Senate conference committee.

One of the main hang-ups is a provision in the Senate bill that would require new voters who have registered by mail to show some identification, such as a driver's license or other documentation, when they arrive at the polling place on Election Day. Some civil rights groups say minority voters and the poor often have no such ID or are intimidated against voting by the requirement.

Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, one of the chief sponsors of the reform legislation in the House and a lead member of the conference committee, says issuing some special voting card has been considered. But civil libertarians are wary of anything that might be seen as an intrusive national registration.

This issue, however, should not be insurmountable for the conferees. Neither is another concern in the Senate bill that calls for a special apparatus at each polling place for disabled Americans who may be unable to operate the standard voting machine.

Even though the reforms have been before Congress for three months, no formal House-Senate conference has yet met. Leaders from each party have been talking, but time is short as Congress approaches an August recess and then heavy campaigning for the November elections.

Some states have not waited for Congress, particularly Florida, for good reason. The Sunshine State got a very black eye for the presidential election chaos of 2000 that introduced such expressions as butterfly ballots and hanging, dimpled and other forms of chads produced by punch-card voting machines.

The Florida Legislature moved swiftly after the election, requiring an extensive revamping of the election machinery and practices. New touch-screen machines were tested just last week in Palm Beach County, where confusingly aligned ballots resulted in many Democratic voters voting for ultraconservative Pat Buchanan and screaming bloody murder afterward.

At 21 supermarket and shopping mall sites across the county, 3,810 voters cast ballots recording their views on innocuous questions on the new apparatus. The much-maligned designer of the butterfly ballot, county Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore, pronounced the reaction to the touch-screen voting "great," with "no negative response from the public whatever."

The new machines made it impossible to over-vote, that is, to cast two votes for one office, as often happened in 2000 with punch-card voting, she said. The machines alerted voters when they under-voted, or failed to have a vote recorded for any office.

The Florida reforms do nothing, however, to protect that state's residents from having their votes trumped, as happened in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, chose the president against precedent for leaving state election matters to state courts. Nor do the reforms now before Congress.

The pending legislation also doesn't address the matter of the Neanderthal Electoral College, which made possible the selection of a president supported by a minority of voters in the country. Legislators from small states jealously guard the bonus in electors their states receive under the Electoral College formula, to the detriment of the "one-man, one-vote" concept.

Still, for all their shortcomings, the reforms awaiting congressional action are the minimum that should be enacted this year. And they should be signed into law by President Bush, for all his aloofness toward election repair throughout the remedial process.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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