Election Reform Drive Brings Little Change

By: - September 7, 2001 12:00 am

Most Americans who return to the polls next year to cast ballots for Congress will vote in exactly the same way they did before. Their ballots will look the same and will likely be counted in the same manner.

In most districts, punch card machines will not lie in scrapheaps, chads will still be hanging and swinging and 1950s-era lever machines will still be the voting machines of choice in many precincts.

Congress has not moved ahead with a bill, states are tip-toeing around the issue waiting for Washington to act and time is drawing short before the next national elections now just 14 months away.

Asked if he could envision a state modernizing equipment by certifying vendors, evaluating proposals, training poll workers and finally educating voters by this time next year, one administrator said, “no chance.”

“I certainly couldn’t do it by 2002, and maybe by 2004,” said Spencer Valentine, co-director of Indiana’s Election Division. “The other part of it wouldn’t even be up to us, but the vendors. I don’t know if they have the capacity to deal with all of the states if a bunch of federal money to buy machines just got dumped in their laps.”

At the end of a summer which saw the release of more than a half-dozen expert task force reports on voting, it has also become clear that change will be much slower than many anticipated in the wake of the 2000 presidential election, when the race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore ended in a virtual dead heat.

Florida, Georgia and Maryland will be the only three states in the country where voters in some districts will cast votes on newer machines and use uniform ballots to mark their choices.

The 1,700 election reform bills introduced in state legislatures have yielded 270 new laws, many of which tinker rather than overhaul voting.

Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the Washington, D.C.-based American Enterprise Institute, said state lawmakers will wait for the federal government to pay for reform before committing to any major election overhauls.

States are saying, before we commit sizable resources, let’s wait to see what the federal government will do,” Ornstein said. “You could see states moving forward or that have moved forward already actually being punished by the federal government for spending their taxpayers’ money.”

The slow progress of reform evident over the past few months does not surprise Ornstein, who said the early stages of election reform was like “picking up a rock and seeing disgusting things squirming around.”

“At first, it seemed like [lawmakers] were appalled enough that they would clean it right away. That didn’t happen,” Ornstein said.

A number of things did happen in the 39 states that completed their legislative sessions for the year. Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia said a number of states – Florida, Tennessee, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Kansas, Texas, Virginia and Washington took steps to avoid Florida-like conflicts by enacting rules on recount procedures and laws that determine what exactly constitutes a vote.

“One of the most important things Florida taught us is that it’s important to delineate especially for punch cards what constitutes a vote,” Sabato said. “As far as establishing recount rules go, that’s easy to do. It doesn’t cost any money.”

The best chance for getting money, however, will be in the coming months.

When Congress resumes its session this week, the Senate is expected to schedule a vote on a bill that would require states to adhere to federally-mandated machine and ballot standards to qualify for federal funds. Before the end of the month, the House Administration Committee is expected to pass a less stringent, bipartisan election reform bill that would offer states block grants to make election improvements.

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