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Voting System Reform Bill OKd, Sent to Bush

Senate gives measure final approval despite some misgivings among civil rights advocates. It authorizes $3.8 billion in federal aid.

October 17, 2002|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- The Senate on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved legislation meant to improve the nation's election systems, clearing it for President Bush's signature despite concerns among some civil rights advocates that the measure could pose new obstacles to voting.

The action, following a similar House vote last week, completes the congressional drive to respond to the 2000 presidential election controversy. Flaws in the machinery of American democracy were exposed in that election, as the Florida recount made punch-card ballots and "chads" infamous and left the contest between Bush and Democrat Al Gore in limbo for more than a month.

Bush announced after Wednesday's Senate vote that he will sign the bill, confirming previous White House statements of support.

"The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy," he said. "I commend the House and Senate for passing legislation to improve our election process."

The bill would authorize more than $3.8 billion in federal aid over three years to state and local election agencies -- a record.

Bush said it would give Washington a "limited but responsible role" in election reform.

Most of the money would be distributed under a formula tied to voting-age population, ensuring that California would be in line for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Senate approved the bill 92 to 2. Only Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both New York Democrats, were opposed. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrats, voted for it.

The House vote on Oct. 10 was 357 to 48.

Some groups, led by Latino rights organizations, have protested that the legislation would impose onerous identification requirements on first-time voters that could keep people away from the polls.

Under the bill, which takes effect for the 2004 election, first-time voters who register by mail will need to provide a current, valid photo identification -- such as a driver's license -- or a copy of a utility bill, bank statement, government check or some other official document with a name and address.

Failing that, a voter may supply a driver's license number, the last four digits of a Social Security number or some other official number kept in a state voter database. Voters whose credentials are challenged also must be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that can be verified later.

Critics say the requirements will prove intimidating and confusing for some and are likely to thwart voting by new citizens -- especially members of ethnic minorities -- who lack a driver's license or other acceptable ID.

"We have never had a federally mandated identification requirement," said Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), one of several Latino House members who voted against the bill.

"The question we have to ask is, why do we have it now?" Gonzalez said. "It adds another obstacle, another condition. You will disenfranchise people. There's no doubt in my mind."

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund issued a statement sharply critical of the bill, which was negotiated by key Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

"Latinos, especially young and elderly voters, are less likely to have the various documents required under the provision," MALDEF said.

Latino rights advocates also are incensed by a provision of the bill that requires states to set aside a voter's registration form if the person fails to answer a specific question on U.S. citizenship. Gonzalez said some legitimate voters might be left off voter rolls for neglecting to check off a box.

Some black lawmakers and African American rights groups also criticized the ID requirement and citizenship check-off provision, but most were persuaded in the end to support the bill. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, for example, endorsed it.

The requirements were written into the bill at the insistence of Republican negotiators as a way to deter voting fraud. Leading Democrats, who accepted them reluctantly, stressed their belief that the bill would expand voting guarantees, not restrict them.

"This is not a perfect bill, and the voter ID provision and citizenship check-off box are not ones I would have wanted," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

"However, all things considered, this bill is an excellent first step in protecting the cherished right to vote," he said.

Schumer and Clinton disagreed, saying the bill could disenfranchise thousands of New York voters.

The bill contains several requirements that would reshape how many states conduct voting.

By 2004, states would be required to offer provisional balloting to all voters -- a step meant to ensure that no one is turned away from the polls who claims to be a valid voter. Eligibility claims would be double-checked by election officials. California already has taken this step, but recent surveys show many states have not.

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