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Bush Likely to Endorse Vote Reforms

Election: Recommended changes in panel's report are aimed at preventing a repeat of last fall's chaotic Florida contest.


WASHINGTON — A blue-ribbon panel's report headed for the White House today recommends a broad series of changes in how the nation votes, including creating a federal holiday for national elections, forming a new federal agency to establish uniform voting standards and easing the use of absentee ballots.

Aimed at preventing a repeat of last fall's chaotic election in Florida, the 100-page report is the work of a private, bipartisan commission chaired by former Presidents Ford and Carter.

The report recommends that states adopt voter registration systems to permit provisional voting by anyone who claims to be registered and that they restore voting rights to felons who have served their sentences.

The report also calls for news organizations to voluntarily refrain from projecting presidential election outcomes until 11 p.m. Eastern time (8 p.m. in California), after polls have closed in the 48 contiguous states.

If they refuse, the report suggests that Congress and states should pass laws to prohibit government officials from disclosing official tallies at precinct levels and above until 11 p.m.

President Bush is expected to endorse some of the report's key recommendations today at the White House Rose Garden with Carter and former House GOP leader Robert H. Michel. Ford, 87, is unable to attend.

Until now, Bush has declined to stake out a position on election reform since winning Florida by a scant 537 votes after a bitter 36-day postelection recount and court battle.

The report's 13 recommendations address many of the problems exposed during the debacle in Florida.

Congress has yet to pass any of several election packages that were proposed after the Florida tumult, although both sides predict a compromise later this year.

Only a handful of states--including Florida--has approved meaningful changes in the absence of financial support from Washington.

White House support could be crucial to breaking the logjam.

The report by the 19-member National Commission on Federal Election Reform calls on Congress and the 50 states to spend an additional $300 million to $400 million each year for election administration, an increase of 30% to 40% over current spending.

To reach that goal, the report suggests Congress provide $1 billion to $2 billion to help create a revolving fund that can be used for matching grants to the states in coming years.

The report urges Congress to create a new agency, called the Election Administration Commission, to develop federal voting system standards to oversee testing and certification of voting machines and to administer federal assistance to the states.

Unlike several previous reports, the commission does not endorse one kind of technology or call for abandoning the punch-card machines made infamous during the Florida recounts.

The chief alternative, optical scan technology that requires a voter to color in a circle on a paper ballot, is not foolproof and is opposed by some advocates for the blind and disabled.

The document especially is critical of the exit polling used by broadcast media and the projections that led major television networks to repeatedly miscall Florida for then-Vice President Al Gore and for Bush on election night.

The commission said Congress should impose a plan for uniform closing hours at the polls in the continental United States for presidential elections if news organizations continue to report election projections.

The commission also urges national television networks to provide at least five minutes of free prime time to each qualified candidate each night during the last 30 days of the presidential campaign, as well as free time for voter education.

"We envision a country where each state maintains accurate, computerized lists of who can vote, networked with local administrators," the report says in its summary of principal recommendations. "Using that system, qualified voters in our mobile society would be able to vote throughout their state without being turned away because of the vagaries of local administration.

"Using the system we recommend here, millions of military and other overseas voters would find it easier to get and return their ballots. Election day would be held on a national holiday, freeing up more people to serve as poll workers and making polling places more accessible," the report says.

"Voting machines would meet a common standard of excellent performance. Each state would have its uniform, objective definitions of what constitutes a vote. News organizations would exert necessary restraint in predicting election outcomes."

The commission was sponsored by the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs and the Century Foundation, a nonprofit institute in New York.

The group, nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, held four hearings around the country this year.

The final recommendations were hammered out in a 9 1/2-hour meeting July 10 at the Miller Center that was chaired by Carter. All but two of the 13 recommendations won unanimous support.

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