WASHINGTON — In a sharp departure from tradition, a group representing the nation's election administrators urged Congress on Thursday to consider a stronger federal role in elections historically managed by state and local officials.
The bipartisan group said Washington should help develop national standards for voting equipment and practices, as well as other key reforms, in hopes of preventing a repeat of Florida's contentious 2000 presidential election and ballot recount.
The group also called on Congress to provide funding so that state and local governments can upgrade voting technology and voter registration systems. Officials estimate it could cost $3 billion to $5 billion to standardize America's 700,000 voting machines.
Local and county governments conduct and pay for most elections, including those for statewide and national office. Washington bears no cost in the election of federal officials.
The report is the fifth since June from an independent group to call for electoral reforms, but it's the first from officials who run elections. The 80 recommendations were compiled by a task force appointed by The Election Center, a nonprofit organization of voter registrars, election supervisors, county clerks, secretaries of state and other government officials across the country.
"Our folks didn't have to go to school to learn about elections," explained task force co-chairman Lance Ward, who retired this month as secretary of the Oklahoma state election board. "We didn't have to bring experts in."
At a news conference Thursday, he and other task force members downplayed the need for new voting machines or other sweeping changes. Far more crucial, they said, are new laws and policies to create statewide voter registries, to clearly define what constitutes a vote and to establish uniform recount procedures.
"The system isn't broken," said Doug Lewis, director of the center. "It just needs repairs."
As a result, Lewis said the group strongly opposes federal mandates. The chief electoral reform bill wending through Congress, sponsored by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), would require states to meet uniform performance standards for voting equipment and administration, with enforcement by the Justice Department if necessary.
"That scares most elections officials to death," Lewis said. He said the Florida recount exposed flaws, but they don't require massive federal intervention. "We didn't suddenly become stupid in one election."
Overall, the report supports many of the key recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Presidents Carter and Ford and endorsed by the White House earlier this month.
Both groups recommend that every state use provisional ballots to ensure that everyone who shows up at a polling place is allowed to vote; about half currently provide provisional ballots. The validity of those ballots can be decided in the days following the election.
The groups also urged the U.S. Postal Service to create a half-price rate for election-related materials. They also said Florida and about 10 other states should restore voting rights to convicted felons after they have served their sentence. Thousands of legal voters in Florida were affected by a botched state-led effort to cull convicted felons from voter rolls last year.
Both groups also stop short of requiring or prohibiting any particular type of voting system.
Florida's reliance on voting machines that use computer punch cards was heavily criticized after abnormally high error rates were detected in some counties. The state Legislature in Tallahassee voted in May to abandon the punch-card machines in favor of optical-scan technology.
But this latest report argues that the punch-card machines were unfairly blamed in Florida.
"Only a small percentage of the problems were directly related to any failure by vote tally devices themselves," the document says. "The problems were created by people, not machines."