Progress on Election Reform

Published May 15th 2001
The chances for meaningful election reform, which stalled after an initial round of fervent pledges to repair deficiencies that surfaced in last November's presidential balloting, have suddenly improved as the result of an unlikely compromise on Capitol Hill. Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, both Democrats, will join Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Sam Brownback of Kansas, both Republicans, in announcing today that they will co-sponsor an election reform bill aimed at providing $2.5 billion in federal funds over five years to states willing to meet certain standards in upgrading the way they hold federal elections.

The coming together of these senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum behind a commendable proposal could not have happened at a better time. In recent weeks White House indifference, partisan squabbling in Congress and simple shortsightedness appeared to blind Washington to the urgent need for election reform. Now there is a chance for reforms to be pursued in time for next year's midterm elections.

Senators Schumer and McConnell had earlier backed competing bills co-sponsored respectively by Senators Brownback and Torricelli. Their joint proposal should command the support of Congressional leaders and a critical mass of members from both parties. It also stands a good chance of moving to the Senate floor expeditiously, in light of Senator McConnell's role as chairman of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over election procedures.

The bill calls for a 12-member bipartisan panel to study election issues and to provide specific recommendations of best practices within six months. A new federal agency focused entirely on election procedures would then accept or modify the panel's findings and oversee the $2.5 billion grant program.

The proposal is skillfully designed to encourage the 7,000 jurisdictions that administer elections nationwide to meet uniform standards in all aspects of the voting process, from the registering of voters to the training of poll workers and the reliability of machines used at polls, while still respecting the Constitution's delegation of election oversight to local governments. Federal mandates may not be possible, but the bill would use the bait of federal funds to coax voluntary reforms out of the states.

The bill advances the federal interest in protecting voters' access to the polls. For instance, states and localities that accept federal grants to upgrade any aspect of their election process must show that they have developed safeguards against erroneous purging of voter rolls. They must also provide for provisional balloting so that voters whose names are left off the rolls by mistake can later have their votes counted.

Moreover, any voting machine purchased in part with federal funds would have to comply with technical standards established by the government and must permit voters to correct ballots that would otherwise fail to register a vote or mistakenly register more than one, thus doing away with the infamous categories of undervotes and overvotes. This would go a long way toward ensuring that Americans living in poorer jurisdictions no longer find their voices diluted on Election Day as a result of faulty voting technologies.

Safeguarding the integrity of elections, democracy's most fundamental undertaking, should transcend partisanship. It is a national imperative. Mitch McConnell, with whom we have strongly disagreed on issues of campaign finance reform, appears to have recognized this by cooperating with his colleagues in advancing this needed legislation. The party's respective leaders in both chambers of Congress, as well as President Bush, ought to get behind it.