Getting over it

October 15, 2002

ANGRY AND EMBARRASSED over the election debacle of 2000, the newly chosen Congress vowed to make reforming the antiquated, 50-state patchwork system its first order of business. Now, it appears the election reform bill will be among the last items enacted as the 107th Congress stumbles to a messy close.

A final vote of the Senate tomorrow and the expected signature of President Bush will establish federal standards intended to ensure that eligible voters will never again be turned away from the polls or have their votes voided because of confusing ballots.

The reforms come too late to apply to this year's congressional elections, and may not have been approved at all but for the botched Florida primary last month that kick-started a stalled legislative drive.

Much of the delay centered on a dispute over a requirement that first-time voters who register by mail show one of several forms of identification at the polls. Republican senators, in particular, insisted on an ID requirement to fight voter fraud.

Civil rights groups complained such a requirement would impose a barrier to voting for low-income Americans who don't have drivers licenses or other common forms of identification. At a minimum, they argued, the request for such papers would be used as a way to harass or discourage voters.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, a leading Democratic negotiator on the bill, won House approval for a version of the measure without an ID requirement. But he faced a Senate that had voted 99-1 to include one. He and the vast majority of his colleagues, including the Congressional Black Caucus, decided to accept the provision rather than let the bill die.

That was the right choice. The legislation directs $3.9 billion in aid to the states to replace outdated punch-card and lever voting machines and to train poll workers. Among its innovative features is a $5 million program to recruit college students to serve as poll workers and take over tasks now often being performed by elderly party volunteers.

Safeguards were also included: Voters without identification or whose eligibility is otherwise challenged would be allowed to cast provisional ballots so that no one who turns up at the polls is turned away.

The most scandalous aspect of our voting process is neither fraud nor errors but the failure of half or more of all eligible voters to even bother to cast ballots.

Congress cannot mandate civic enthusiasm. But it can help increase confidence in the election process by doing away with a system that routinely lets thousands of votes from those who do bother to show up go uncounted.

Activists in both parties as well as voter and civil rights advocates should work together to implement the new procedures as quickly as possible and correct any flaws.

It is long past time to get over it.

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