Harris in Spotlight as Congress Debates Election Reform
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Love her or loathe her, no one played a more prominent role in the nation's 38-day post-presidential election predicament than Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
Harris stole the spotlight again yesterday (4/25), this time in a pronounced reversal of roles. Just as she took the lead in certifying President George W. Bush's as the Florida's electoral winner last year, Harris went to Capitol Hill to stand at the forefront in a very different campaign - election reform.
Harris, along with four other secretaries of state, state and county lawmakers and civil rights group representatives spoke at the first hearing on election reform to the House Administration Committee. The Senate Commerce Committee held two hearings before the Easter recess.
Harris stood firm in her belief that the problems that plagued her state in November spoiled and confusing ballots, missing names from registration rolls, a lack of recount procedures reflected election ills found across the country.
"Ladies and gentlemen, election reform is not just a Florida imperative," she said. "And the chance that history will soon repeat itself in terms of challenged elections...is very real. Join with me and other secretaries of state in affirming a simple but powerful truth. Democracy ultimately depends on the faith and the confidence of the people."
In a surprise to some members of the committee, the five secretaries offered nearly identical interpretations of what they wanted Congress to do to move election reform efforts forward in their states.
Hours after Harris addressed the committee, the Florida House overwhelmingly approved a bill to scrap punch cards in favor of "second chance" optical scan machines, the Associated Press reported. Only three lawmakers all Democrats - voted against the plan because they said proposed $20 million the state would offer localities to upgrade their voting systems would not cover all costs. The Senate still needs to approve the measure, which has the support of both Harris and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
The National Association of Secretaries of State and those testifying called for:
- voluntary federal minimum standards for voting machines;
- equal access to the polls for minorities, the elderly and the disabled;
- uniform state standards for recounts;
- more thorough training for poll workers;
- and more aggressive voter education efforts.
Secretaries and state lawmakers want federal money but few strings attached.
Nearly all, Republicans and Democrats, have asked for block grants that would allow states to use the money as they see fit.
Lawmakers have filed more than 30 election reform bills in the 107th Congress, offering states between $500 million and $2.5 billion to purchase new "second-chance" voting machines. Studies indicate the newer machines reduce the number of spoiled ballots by rejecting over-votes, stray marks and warning of under-votes.
Not all state legislatures waited for Congress to act, however. Lawmakers in Georgia and Maryland adopted uniform standards earlier this year. The District of Columbia has scrapped punch card machines in favor of optical scan readers. But the federal role will also be crucial so states struggling with shrinking coffers can afford to make changes, Harris said. Rep. Robert Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the Administration Committee, estimates it will cost at least $5 billion to fix the various problems plaguing elections nationwide.
While a number of observers have noted in recent weeks that momentum for election reform appears to be fading in Washington, those at the hearing yesterday sounded confident that Congress will act quickly. Committee members said the apparent unified front for election reform could bolster efforts to have election reform legislation enacted and have money flowing to states in time for 2002 elections.
"I hope the American public is struck by the nonpartisan nature of this hearing," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, R-Md., the ranking member of the committee. "There is a unanimity of opinion that action needs to be taken."