YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Lawmakers on Common Ground With Election Reform Legislation

Congress: Measure funds state upgrades, sets national standards. Vote is likely before elections.


WASHINGTON — Congressional negotiators agreed Friday on legislation to give states more than $3.8 billion and impose new national voting standards to help fix flaws exposed by the 2000 presidential election fiasco.

Breaking a lengthy partisan impasse, the compromise struck by House and Senate negotiators is meant to bolster voter access to the polls, minimize spoiled ballots and deter fraud. Lawmakers hope the bill, which President Bush has indicated he will sign, will restore confidence in an electoral process shaken badly two years ago.

The legislation takes special aim at two oft-ridiculed voting systems, setting aside $325 million to pay for replacing punch-card and lever-operated machines. Punch cards and the "chads" they produce--hanging, dimpled and otherwise--became infamous during the protracted Florida recount that ultimately determined the 2000 presidential race's outcome.

But upgrading voting machinery is only one goal of the legislation. Just as important, lawmakers said, are provisions that seek to ensure equal access to voting through uniform nationwide standards.

Never before, lawmakers said, has the federal government injected itself so extensively into the details of how states run elections. Some lawmakers compared the measure's potential impact to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ended discriminatory voting laws.

"With this bill, we move closer to the day when every vote cast will be counted," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), a lead negotiator on the compromise.

Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), another negotiator, said the bill would "go on for decades to produce elections that leave no one behind."

The compromise, melding bills passed in the House and Senate, is expected to come to a final vote before Congress adjourns shortly before the November elections.

While there were no figures immediately available on how much each state would get, California stands to receive hundreds of millions of dollars because much of the money would be distributed according to a formula tied to population.

Most of the bill's key requirements would be enforced starting in 2004, though states would be able to obtain two-year extensions in some cases.

The measure's enactment would represent the second major step by Congress this year to change the political process, following passage this year of the campaign finance law that aims to lessen the flow of large contributions to the two major political parties.

Because the voting bill deals directly with the issues most sensitive to a democracy and to partisan politics--who votes and how votes are counted--compromise was delayed for months as Republicans and Democrats bickered over fine points.

But lawmakers were given another reason to cut a deal last month when the Florida Democratic gubernatorial primary was clouded by widespread voting problems.

One key Republican, Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, also pointed to the brewing ballot controversy in this fall's New Jersey Senate race as a reason to pass voting reform.

"There's a lot of cynicism about elections in America right now," Blunt said.

While Friday's agreement drew applause across the ideological spectrum in Congress, some groups that have tracked the voting bill gave it mixed reviews.

The League of Women Voters expressed support with portions of the bill that would require and pay for better voting machines, voter education, training for poll workers and other steps to improve the voting process. But Kay J. Maxwell, the league's president, said she was "deeply concerned about possible disenfranchisement of voters" through the bill's anti-fraud provisions.

Those provisions were the main reason that prominent Republicans, such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, embraced the legislation.

Throughout debate on the bill, Republicans generally focused on combating voter fraud while Democrats pressed to expand voter participation. In the compromise, each party claimed advances, following the formula coined by Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.): "Make it easier to vote and tougher to cheat."

To help prevent fraud, the bill would require all states to maintain statewide voter registration lists. It would also require new voters who register by mail to provide proof of identity when registering or when casting a ballot for the first time. Acceptable proof would include a utility bill, government check, bank statement or driver's license.

Lawmakers stressed, though, that a photo identification was not required.

They also gave two options for voters who fail to carry acceptable identification.

States could electronically verify identity using a driver's license number, the last four digits of a Social Security number or another assigned number kept in a database. And voters who still lack verification could cast a provisional ballot that would later be double-checked for validity.

Los Angeles Times Articles