GOP, Democrats Sharply Split On Election Reform
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Republicans have generally focused their election reform efforts on enforcement they want to stop fraud by requiring identification at the polls and making sure registration databases are regularly maintained and purged of felons, dead people and inactive voters.
Democrats want better processes to restore the voting rights of felons who served their time, new machines to ensure accuracy and prevent over-votes and spoiled ballots and provisional ballots to allow voters not found on registration rolls to vote first and have their qualifications studied later.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman opened a Senate election reform hearing this month with a warning.
Problems at the polls, the vice presidential also-ran said, "strike at the heart of who we are as Americans. [When] a citizen's right to vote is debased, we are all that much less citizens."
Moments later, Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, a Missouri Republican, handed each member of the Senate a thick, brown binder full of court papers, eyewitness interviews and registration rolls. The GOP leader sounded a different alarm.
"Voting is the most important duty and responsibility of a citizen of our republic," Bond said. "It should not be diluted by fraud, false filings in lawsuits, judges who don't follow the law and politicians who try to profit from the confusion."
Since the 2000 presidential election, Republicans and Democrats alike have preached the importance of bipartisanship in election reform. But the phrase has a strikingly different meaning depending on which side of the aisle a politician sits.
"The only nonpartisan part of election reform is the money. It could be the only thing both parties agree on," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, a school with its own nonpartisan task force on election reform. "Training poll workers, civic education, these types of things are generally not opposed by either party."
But agreement largely stops there. Republicans have generally focused their efforts on enforcement they want to stop fraud by requiring identification at the polls and making sure registration databases are regularly maintained and purged of felons, dead people and inactive voters.
On the other side, Democrats want better processes to restore the voting rights of felons who served their time, new machines to ensure accuracy and prevent over-votes and spoiled ballots and provisional ballots to allow voters not found on registration rolls to vote first and have their qualifications studied later.
In statehouses nationwide, Republicans back efforts that would prohibit exit polling and the release of election results until after polls close. Some have introduced measures that would increase the punishment for voter fraud. GOP lawmakers have sponsored the majority of bills in 10 states that require the early counting of military and overseas ballots.
Democrats seek to appropriate funds for new equipment, allow in-person absentee voting and to call for access for the disabled to all polling places. They want to explore alternatives to traditional polling-place voting as well, seeking studies in their states on internet voting, elections-by-mail and early voting.
Zoe Hudson, executive director of the Constitution Project's Election Reform Task Force, said it's a question of party priorities.
"Many Republicans talk about fraud first then voting procedures. Democrats talk about procedures first and fraud second," Hudson said.
This divide has meant the calls months ago for sweeping election reform were heeded in only a few places, where either both sides came together to respond to a crisis, or one party exerted its will over the other.
So far, only three states have adopted sweeping election reform measures. Florida, which is controlled by Republicans, did so at the request of Gov. Jeb Bush, younger brother of the President. Maryland and Georgia passed but have not yet funded plans to purchase state-of-the-art voting machines after the proposals passed Democrat-controlled legislatures.
In other states:
- Republican legislators in Connecticut introduced a number of bills to require identification at the polls. Democratic lawmakers have put forth plans that identify those behind bars who retained voting rights despite their incarceration.
- Illinois Democrats introduced plans to require the state to use "second-chance" voting machines that identify ballot mistakes and give voters a chance to fix their ballots. Republicans have proposed procedures for poll workers that make sure election judges draw a line through the name of each voter at least once an hour until polls close.
- A Mississippi Democrat proposed a bill requiring absentee ballots be sent automatically to everyone in the state over 65. A Republican introduced a bill that would require county clerks to photocopy the entire contents of ballot boxes, tally sheets, poll books and voter signature registers.
- Alabama Democrats introduced no-excuse absentee voting to allow any resident to receive a mail-in ballot without any justification or proof of absence on election day. Two Republicans and one Democrat introduced bills to require photo identification at the polls.
- Democrats in the Tennessee Senate used their majority muscle to push through a bill that counts punch cards if they display what Republicans considered a liberal standard of voter intent.
Despite the nationwide trends, Republicans and Democrats in some instances acted outside traditional party lines. In Arkansas, a GOP lawmaker introduced a bill to allow early voting in any county with more than 25,000 residents. California Secretary of State Bill Jones, a Republican, proposed a $230 million fund to help counties upgrade their voting machines. Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, stripped all election reform money from his budget.
A level of bipartisanship exists as well, but after each party softens its stances. A U.S. Senate bill introduced last week by two Republicans and two Democrats offers funding to states for the purchase of equipment, training of poll workers and voter education. Democrats, however, dropped their request for uniformity in ballots and voting equipment across states while Republicans softened language on anti-fraud measures.
"Democrats wanted the standards, while Republicans believe that there is fraud out there and you need to crack down," said Lloyd Leonard, a spokesman for the League of Women Voters. "But they took out many of the partisan issues and came up with a pretty strong election administration reform bill."