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One year after Florida debacle: Jesse Jackson Jr. presses for fundamental election reforms
By John Nichols
November 7, 2001

One year after the election that threw the United States into a bitter 36-day struggle to determine whether Al Gore or George W. Bush had won Florida and the presidency, a good many Washington Democrats seen content to forgive and forget. Or at least to keep quiet about the dubious nature of a now popular commander-in-chief's court-ordered presidency.

But not U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.

The outspoken congressman marked the anniversary by setting up a podium in front of the Supreme Court and announcing that he would ask Congress to endorse a series of dramatic voting reforms.

"The disputes in Florida and other states showed us that we need one national standard for voting and one national standard for counting votes," said Jackson. "But they also reminded us that there are more basic reforms that are needed."

Among the reforms Jackson seeks is a constitutional amendment to guarantee all Americans an explicit right to vote.

"Most Americans will be shocked, appalled and outraged to learn that their Constitution does not grant them the right to vote. The 15th, 19th and 26th Amendments prohibit 'discrimination' in voting on the basis of race, sex and age -- but does not extend to (Americans) the right to vote," Jackson said, recalling Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's admonition to Al Gore's lawyers during last year's Florida dispute that no such protection exists. "Even though the right to vote is the supreme right in a democracy, the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore told Americans there is no explicit fundamental right to suffrage in the Constitution."

Surrounded by Constitutional scholars and veteran voting rights activists, Jackson outlined a reform agenda that also included proposals to open presidential debates to viable third-party candidates and allow for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) in presidential elections. In an IRV system, voters rank candidates on their ballots, with votes for losing first choices being transferred to second choice contenders. (Had such a system been in place last year, a voter could have cast a ballot for Green Ralph Nader and then, if Nader were eliminated, still have had a second-choice vote registered for Democrat Al Gore.)

Jackson's initiatives were hailed by the Center for Voting and Democracy's Rob Richie, and representatives of the NAACP and USPIRG. American University constitutional law professor Jamin Raskin praised Jackson's "comprehensive package of democracy reforms."

Yet, Jackson was the first to admit that he will have to fight to gain Congressional consideration of his proposals.

Many Washington Democrats who pledged that they would "never forget" the November 7, 2000, presidential election and its bitter aftermath seem now, one year after the contested vote, to have muted their criticism. With George W. Bush's approval rating hovering around 90 percent, the anniversary that Bush aides dreaded is passing with only a restrained response from partisans who just months ago complained bitterly about how the election had been stolen.

The House Democratic Caucus did, on Wednesday, issue a call for national standards to improve voting machinery, improve access at polling places, restore the voting rights of ex-felons and create statewide voter registration databases for use by poll workers on Election Day. Citing systemic flaws that continue to prevent full participation in the election process, the caucus report said, "We cannot sit back and continue to let this happen while millions of voters are being disenfranchised at the polls." Additionally, there were reports Wednesday that Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Sen. Chris Bond, R-Mo., were close to agreement on a compromise bill to support overhaul of some elections practices. Such a compromise would likely include provisions backed by Dodd and most Democrats to help states upgrade voting machinery and procedures, along with new voter-fraud rules pushed by Bond and the Republicans.

Despite evidence of some official activity in Washington, however,the anniversary of last year's vote has clearly been obscured by the war on terrorism and anthrax scares that continue to shake the nation's capital. And the Bush administration has done its part by scheduling a series of high-profile meetings with foreign leaders that serve to buff the chief executive's presidential image.

Yet, Jackson is undaunted.

"September 11, if anything, was an attack upon the democracy we thought we had," the congressman said. "As a result, we came together as one nation, united to defend (what) the terrorists did not destroy -- our freedom and our democracy. I offer the voting rights constitutional amendment to better ground our democracy in the Constitution, and these legislative proposals as a way of affirming and strengthening it."

John Nichols' book on the Florida vote and its aftermath, "Jews for Buchanan: Did You Hear the One About the Theft of the American Presidency? (New Press), will be published November 14.

More Information on the Bills Introduced by Rep. Jackson

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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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