State Officials Meet on Election Reform

 
Hoping to head off congressional interference in elections, the nation's secretaries of state unveiled their own recommendations on election reform Monday (2/5), calling on Washington, D.C. to steer clear of state affairs and allow local officials to correct outdated and error-prone voting systems on their own.

The only thing the secretaries want of the federal government is more financial help to do the job right so that states won't be forced to rely on the courts to resolve election standoffs.

The recommendations by the National Secretaries of State Association represent the first serious attempt by elected officials since the presidential election debacle in Florida to produce a "blueprint" aimed at correcting common election system problems in every state.

The resolution, hammered out by the NASS Task Force on Election Standards, is woefully short on details. But it does focus on the importance of utilizing the best technology available to minimize voting errors, ensuring equal access to all polling places, improving training techniques for election workers and expanding voter education programs.

The task force, which met in Washington over the weekend, cautioned that the 15 recommendations contained in the resolution were only a first step in a process expected to produce a more detailed report later this year. In the meantime, they encouraged local and state officials not to wait on the federal government to act, but to take advantage of heightened public awareness in the aftermath of the Florida drama to improve their election procedures.

"After the election of November, the American people expect an appropriate response," Alabama Secretary of State Jim Bennett, a task force member, told his colleagues Monday. "This is a golden opportunity for state officials, who have worked for years to bring these issues to the forefront, to get something passed."

Although the George W. Bush-Al Gore electoral battle did focus much-needed attention on the nation's ailing voting system, many states to their credit have been slowly implementing changes over the years. Prior to this year, for example, some 32 states had enacted reforms relevant to their specific problems.

Fourteen others, including Florida, Texas and Georgia, have election reform bills pending. They range from forming study commissions to declaring Election Day a holiday in an effort to get more people to the polls. Quite a few bills call for replacing old punch card and other outdated voting systems with newer technology that makes it easier for voters to cast their ballots and for election officials to count them.

Some of the measures bear unique witness to the Florida mess that ended up putting Bush in the White House via a Supreme Court ruling and that forced Gore to fall back on his experience as a former journalist to land a college teaching job. A bill pending in Gore's home state of Tennessee, for example, is called the "2000 Presidential Election Debacle Reform Bill of 2001."

Some states that have already made improvements to their election laws are considering more changes. In Maryland, for instance, new voting machinery and better-trained election workers have helped reduce the error rate of uncounted votes in elections from more than 1 percent of the total cast to about .6 percent. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening is expected to consider a recommendation in a few weeks calling for the integration of all county voting procedures into one comprehensive statewide system.

Maryland Secretary of State John Willis, who is also a task force member, said Maryland plans to act as soon as possible to set its own statewide standards on elections.

"While we're looking for a partnership with the federal government and Congress, we're going to be moving ahead," he said.For the most part, the secretaries seemed to agree that Congress' role in the reform process ought to be one primarily of providing the necessary monies to help states and counties purchase new technology and create better training and education programs.

As for federal standards, some secretaries of state called on Congress to do more to help the Federal Elections Commission enforce the election guidelines already on the books. Improving the funding and authority for the FEC, said Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, would go along way towards ensuring that elections are carried out fairly and with a fewer errors.

"We need a process of standardization, not centralization. We all know it is impossible to run elections from Washington. But what's ironic is that the FEC has promulgated standards but has not been funded sufficiently or allowed to enforce them in many instances," said Blackwell, who serves on an FEC advisory panel on elections.

Whatever Congress decides to do on election reform, it's a sure bet that more money will be part of the mix, said Curtis Gans, who heads the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate.Congress, he said, would never try "to take the power of implementing elections from the states." But he added that national lawmakers will likely move by the end of the year to establish some new federal standards over elections.

The legislation, he said, will deal with how recounts are conducted, how ballots are designed, what kind of voting mechanisms will be deemed acceptable, the computerization of registration rolls and the hiring and training of poll workers. He said Congress would also authorize more spending to help election boards implement the changes.

"All of these things, I think, are going to happen," said Gans, who cautions people "to stop thinking that there's one procedural fix" for the nation's election ills.

At the moment, there is at least a dozen election reform bills pending in Congress, including a proposal to provide more money and technical assistance to local officials. Another bill would establish a uniform poll closing time across the country. A half dozen other measures are also being readied as more U.S. lawmakers seek to leave their imprint on the election process.

For now, the bill that stands the best chance of passage is a bicameral measure that addresses a broad range of concerns, everything from how recounts should be carried out to what standards should be set for ballots. Its chief sponsors in the Senate are Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky and Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey. In the House, Reps. Tom Davis (R) of Virginia and Steve Rothman (D) of New Jersey are the main sponsors.

Still more legislation may be introduced later this year after Congress hears from the National Commission on Election Standards and Reform, which was impaneled in the immediate aftermath of the Florida fiasco. Made up primarily of county election officials, the commission has been holding a series of meetings around the country and hopes to present its preliminary recommendations in late February or March.

Congress will also hear soon from a newly formed commission headed by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford that was organized by the non-partisan Century Foundation.

In a joint statement, the two men said the commission would not try to "rewrite the Constitution or refight the contest in Florida," but would instead focus on the "best practices" used today by state and local election officials. The Carter-Ford commission will also consider the legal issues involved in making changes to existing laws.
 
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