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Senate OKs Overhauling of Elections


WASHINGTON — A nearly unanimous Senate approved a landmark $3.5-billion bill Thursday that would require states to upgrade flawed and often-antiquated voting systems in response to the 2000 election debacle.

The 99 to 1 vote, providing a bipartisan coda to the bitter partisan conflict, appeared to ensure that some form of the legislation would become law before the next presidential election.

The Senate bill would authorize the $3.5 billion over five years to help state and local agencies meet new standards for voting systems, replace outdated ballot-counting machinery, improve access to polling places for the disabled and take other steps to bolster voter participation and prevent fraud.

The House passed its own voting reform bill in December, authorizing $2.65 billion in federal aid over three years. Sponsors from both parties are optimistic the two versions can be quickly reconciled.

President Bush, who emerged victorious from the 2000 Florida recount that spotlighted many of the problems the legislation aims to fix, is encouraging lawmakers to reach agreement. His budget recommends $1.2 billion for voting reform over the next three years.

"I commend the Senate for passing an election reform bill and bringing us a step closer to enacting legislation this year," Bush said in a statement. He also urged lawmakers to "respect the primacy of state and local governments" as they craft a compromise.

A key difference between the two chambers is that the House bill gives states leeway to craft their own improvements in the election process, while the Senate version requires certain changes.

But the margin of passage in the Senate and the positive reactions of several House members to the action made clear that consensus on election reform is rapidly developing.

Describing the legislation's magnitude, some senators compared it to a 1993 law that sought to expand voter participation by allowing registration at state motor vehicle offices and to a 1965 law protecting the voting rights of minorities.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the bill would make "our election systems more accurate, more accessible and more honest."

Others said the bill's proposed federal funding was unprecedented. "This is the first time that I know of that we've actually stepped up and written a check" to help states fix voting problems, said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

Still, the measure would not necessarily repair every flaw, real or perceived, in an election system largely under control of a patchwork of 50 state and thousands of local agencies. Some experts say that even if the larger Senate funding figure becomes law, more money will be needed to replace poorly functioning machines. Others warn it is impossible to correct every weakness in a system that depends on voters following instructions.

Also, many of the bill's proposed requirements are already the norm in various states.

For instance, California is among roughly 20 states that allow would-be voters to cast a "provisional" ballot, subject to later verification, even if their names are not listed at a polling station. The bill would require all states to offer such protections by the 2004 elections.

Sen. Conrad R. Burns (R-Mont.) cast the sole vote against the bill, objecting to what he termed its "one-size-fits-all" approach. Rural states such as his own--where many still vote the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper--won't necessarily benefit from the bill, he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized provisions it said would undermine voting rights, especially an anti-fraud provision to require many voters to prove their identity before they cast a ballot for the first time.

Reps. Carrie P. Meek (D-Fla.) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), members of the Congressional Black Caucus, stood behind senators Thursday to praise their bill. Johnson, who heads the caucus, said she did not believe the identification requirements in the Senate bill would block participation by black or Latino voters. Instead, she praised the bill as a step forward for minimum standards for voting systems.

Had its provisions been in effect before the 2000 election, Johnson asserted tersely, "the voters would have gotten the president they elected."

But while some Democrats remain resentful about the controversial outcome of the contest between Bush and former Vice President Al Gore, most lawmakers said they hoped enactment of a new law would assuage some of the bitterness.

Indeed, bipartisan calls for change emerged even during the 36-day recount that made "hanging chads" and "butterfly ballots" famous. Afterward, former Presidents Ford and Carter headed a commission that recommended reforms embraced by Bush.

Under the Senate bill, states would have to meet several minimum standards. Among them:

* Voting systems, such as the heavily criticized punch-card ballot machines, would be required to meet a minimal rate of acceptable error. (California is already replacing punch cards.)

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