Tracking Election Reform: Florida Moves Forward
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Election reform efforts suffered a partisan blow in Congress this week but received a top-level vote of confidence in Florida, the state regarded as ground zero for voter discontent in November 2000.
Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats broke off talks Tuesday (3/27) to create an election reform task force after the two sides could not agree on the make-up of a panel. Democrats sought a 50-50 split while Republicans wanted a one-member majority and control of the chairmanship. Democrats created their own task force in February to hold hearings and panel discussions on structural changes to the country's disparate election systems.
John Feehery, a spokeswoman for Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said Democrats refused to budge on their position despite GOP offers of a 50-50 share of resources and a requirement for a super-majority for any task force recommendations.
"It'll definitely slow things down and it's unfortunate. This is going to throw everything back to committees, who were counting on this select committee to work through the bills," Feehery said.
Democrats charge the Republicans violated the bipartisan spirit of election reform efforts through their insistence on majority control.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the chairman of a Democratic task force on election reform, said the absence of a bipartisan panel would not "sound the death knell" on the issue.
"This issue will not go away, nor should it," Hoyer said.
Hosting an electronic town meeting on Tuesday (3/27), Gov. Jeb Bush (R) expressed confidence that the legislature would adopt a "system that is the best in all 50 states."
"It requires a number of things, including putting in a standard, precinct-based optical scanning system as a minimum state standard by the fall of 2002. That has the lowest rate of error," Bush said. "It will require the state to purchase that equipment."
A task force which looked into Florida's 2000 elections found such optical scan machines, which require voters to fill in ovals and individually feed their ballots into a reader, had an error rate of 0.83 percent. The optical scan machines reject ballots with over-votes or stray marks. By comparison, punch card systems that require voters to punch out chads carried a much greater 3.93 percent error rate.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine said leasing machines for 41 counties would cost $20 million.
A poll conducted for The Miami Herald found a frustrated Florida electorate would be willing to pay much more for state-of-the-art touch-screen voting systems. The poll, released Wednesday (3/28), revealed 66 percent of Floridians would back a $200 million plan to replace all of the state's voting machines with touch-screen systems while 23 percent opposed it. The poll also found growing numbers of Sunshine State residents believe President George W. Bush won November's election. Fifty-nine percent of respondents said Bush won the election, up from 49 percent in November.
A Florida Senate committee also passed a bill Wednesday (3/28) that would make it easier for convicted felons to have their voting rights restored after they served sentences.
In other election news:
- President Jimmy Carter, hosting the first of four public hearings on election reform in Atlanta on Monday (3/26), said the nation's hodge-podge of systems used to cast votes and maintain registration rolls lags behind even the world's most fragile democracies. Carter told the National Commission on Election Reform the United States would not qualify for international election monitors. The commission is co-chaired by Carter and former President Gerald Ford. The commission plans to make recommendations to Congress when it completes the public hearings.
- Virginia Gov. James Gilmore signed six election reform bills into law Sunday (3/25). The state will have new standards for conducting recounts and clarifying how many hanging punch chads qualify for a vote. Electors in the next presidential election will be legally bound to vote for the candidate who receives the most votes statewide, and anyone who votes more than once in the same election will now be guilty of a felony. The rules will take effect on July 1, four months before Virginia voters go to the polls for statewide elections.
Alaska lawmakers passed a bill Wednesday (3-28) that would prevent election workers from invalidating absentee ballots if poll employees forgot to provide a required signature. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported the bill passed the State Senate with a unanimous vote.
- A General Accounting Office report found registration fraud in the 40 largest U.S. counties was not as widespread as one lawmaker had predicted. Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., had asked the research agency to see if the number of registered voters exceeded the number of voting-age residents. In early March, Bond introduced a bill that would require states and localities to purge voter rolls if they discovered swollen registration rolls. Bond said he was "exercised and upset" after he found instances of long-dead names on St. Louis' registration rolls in the November 2000 election. The GAO found, however, none of the registration rolls in the nation's largest counties including St. Louis County - exceeded their population.
- The Illinois House unanimously approved an election reform bill that would require the state to pay for upgrading voting machines in every state precinct. Sponsored by Illinois Speaker of the House Michael Madigan, the bill would create a uniform standard that requires optical scan voting machines that reject ballots with over-votes. Georgia's legislature approved a similar plan last week.