Tracking Election Reform: This Week's News
By Daniel Seligson, Staff Writer
Despite last year's fiasco in Florida, several state legislatures this week defeated or pigeon-holed election reform measures, while others started to debate whether to overhaul how their citizens vote.
A plan that would have required uniform voting machines and ballots in Maryland was buried in committee, while Utah lawmakers finished their legislative session without passing any significant election reform measures. A Republican-controlled Colorado House committee rejected a Democratic state Senate-passed plan to divide the state's eight electoral votes by district instead of awarding them winner-take-all.
Rep. Dave Schultheis, a Republican member of the Colorado House State Affairs Committee, told the Denver Post "our country was not set up for a populist vote."
Maine and Nebraska are currently the only states that allocate electoral votes to the presidential candidates by congressional district. Measures similar to the Colorado plan were defeated in Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland earlier this year.
The separate Maryland Voters' Bill of Rights called for a centralized voter registration system, handicapped-accessible voting places, unrestricted access to absentee ballots and voting machines that reject over-voted or under-voted ballots for correction. It died in a House committee Tuesday.
Still alive, however, is a proposal by Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening that the state move to a uniform direct recording electronic, or touch-screen, voting system in time for the 2002 congressional elections.
In Georgia, a machine-based election reform plan like Glendening's passed the House Monday (3/19).
The legislation requires the state government to pay for new voting systems before the 2004 presidential election if money is available, and would use this year's municipal elections to test candidates for new voting machines. The measure was recommended by Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat, and sponsored by a Democratic senator.
In other election reform-related action this week:
- Florida lawmakers began considering a flurry of post-2000 election reform bills. A three-year, $200 million plan to do away with all punch card voting in the state recommended by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris will likely face the closest scrutiny in the legislature. It also calls for a centralized voter registration database and provisional ballots for voters who find their registration status in question on Election Day.Some Republican lawmakers in the state are balking at the price tag of such measures and wondering aloud whether voter error, rather than voting machines, caused the state's five-week-long presidential election deadlock after the Nov. 7 election.
- Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver released the results of a three-month study of the state's voting practices last week. Culver said that while the state did not experience Florida-type problems there are, for example, no punch cards in the state there were nonetheless a number of needs. Culver said the legislature and state government should consider funding a new computerized voter registration system and matching funds for localities to upgrade from paper ballots and antiquated lever machines. He also called for a better system of election night reporting from precincts.
- A task force in South Carolina Wednesday (3/21) proposed no-excuse absentee voting, early voting and a uniform electronic voting system statewide as it completed its post-2000 election report.
- Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) this week marked the end of the state's legislative session with a flurry of bill signings and a handful of vetoes. Other than technical changes to absentee vote deadlines, only a few election reform measures came before the legislature. One such bill, a plan to require photo identification at the polls, passed the House and failed in the Senate.
The Arizona Senate approved (3/20) a $4.1 million plan to overhaul election systems in the state. Senate Bill 1529 would set minimum standards for election machines and include a $3.4 million appropriation for rural counties to upgrade from punch card systems to optical scan machines. The bill would also allot $700,000 to send vote-by-mail request forms to every registered voter before the next primary.
The bill will now goes to a House committee, where it could face stronger GOP resistance. Republicans voted 11 to 4 against the Democrat-sponsored bill in the evenly divided Senate. And Republicans command a 12-seat edge in the Arizona House.
Sen. Chris Cummiskey, the bill's sponsor, said, however, a number of key Republicans have signaled their support for the measure, which includes the recommendations of a bipartisan post-election 2000 task force. While he said the bill could face opposition from some fiscally conservative Republicans, he expects it will ultimately pass.
"Some people don't want to spend [$4.1 million] at a time when we're tightening budgets," Cummiskey said. "Everyone comes here with their own agenda, and some won't vote for any new spending. But I think we have the support and the interest in making these changes."
- A North Carolina House committee Wednesday (3/21) voted unanimously to phase out punch card ballots and place an immediate ban on butterfly ballots. The State Board of Elections estimates the cost of replacing punch card voting systems in the eight counties that still use them at $8 million. Butterfly ballots, which were not used in the state during the past election, would be banned in any future election.
- While Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) said the conduct of elections in her state should be a "model for others to follow," Republican lawmakers nonetheless put forth five new bills.
The measures introduced Wednesday (3/21) would change primary election dates from September to May, put the offices of governor and lieutenant governor on the same ticket, allow independent voters to vote in one primary, change the placement of names on primary ballots and grant the state election department the authority to move the day of a special election.
Republican lawmakers who sponsored the bills said reforming rules for primaries would boost participation in races that seldom draw more than 20 percent of eligible voters.