Next big reform: the way we vote

Reinventing the election process grabs attention of state and federal lawmakers, though pricetag may be steep.

As the presidential race extends yet another week into its "challenge phase," scores of legislators at national, state, and local levels are already working to make sure that an election like this one never happens again.

From amending the Constitution to chad-proofing ballots, election reform may be a first task for Congress and state legislatures across the United States. It's also creating a bonanza for entrepreneurs eager to move election technology into the 21st century - or at least out of the 19th.

Some proposals aim to work out kinks in the system: Decide what constitutes a vote before television crews converge outside the recount center. Scrap archaic voting machines and baffling ballots. Clean up voting lists. Train poll workers to cope with floods of new voters or absentee ballots.

Other suggestions, such as abolishing the Electoral College, reopen some of the toughest issues the Founding Fathers debated when they drafted the Constitution.

"It's pretty clear from this election that we need to modernize our voting equipment. Having a hodgepodge of systems using 19th-century technology doesn't cut it when we can put a man on the moon," says Eric Olson of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md.

Upgrading and standardizing the voting process may be the first fix - and the punch-card ballot, the first casualty. Reps. William Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts and Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina are proposing legislation this week to develop national standards for the conduct of federal elections, including outlawing the ballots that introduced the world to the many ways voters can punch - but not quite - a piece of cardboard.

Congressman Delahunt had a crash course in dimpled and dangling chads when his 1996 congressional primary race wound up in the courts. He lost the race on primary night, but sued in state court to have more than 900 dimpled ballots counted as votes. They were, and Delahunt eventually won the seat by 108 votes. After that controversial recount, Massachusetts outlawed punch-card voting.

"Massachusetts fixed its ballot problem and used public outrage to help build the momentum to make changes," says Steve Schwadron, an aide to Delahunt.

Under the terms of the Delahunt/Graham proposal, a bipartisan commission, including state and local representatives, will study the "accuracy, integrity, and efficiency" of federal election procedures. Washington will also establish federal matching grants to help states upgrade their voting systems.

Any moves to dictate election policy to the states could run up against constitutional issues. But advocates of reform say there is a federal interest in how states manage elections for national offices.

Congress is gearing up for hearings on many of the glitches of Election 2000, including botched media coverage on election night, the timeliness and accuracy of vote counts, and mishandled overseas military ballots. The most explosive could be in a House subcommittee, where Rep. W. J. "Billy" Tauzin (R) of Louisiana plans to grill television news executives on the timing and content of their election-night projections.

Others will look into the nuts and bolts of election practice. A panel headed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky will take up issues such as ballot formats, absentee voting, and poll closing times. And Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York plans to introduce a bill to fund a $10 million study to modernize the voting system, examining alternatives such as Internet voting and voting by mail. He proposes another $250 million in matching grants to help states upgrade their systems.

"The current system is antediluvian. We haven't updated it in any significant way in years, and that's one of the reasons why turnout has declined by nearly 20 percent since 1960," says Senator Schumer.

State and local officials, however, are not eager to be edged out by high-profile national initiatives. Many are launching their own reform proposals.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) will propose their solutions at a Dec. 14 meeting in Dallas. "I would hope that Congress would not move too quickly," says president Sharon Priest.

She and other state officials worry that a standardized voting system would impose high costs on states and counties. In Arkansas, for example, Ms. Priest estimates that the cost of eliminating punch-card voting would be $14 million.

For counties looking to replace antiquated voting systems, there are already a number of high-tech options, such as optical-scan and touch-screen systems. By 2004, the "vast majority of states" will turn to Internet voting, predicts John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems.

Election 2000 is also reviving interest in abolishing the Electoral College - one of the last issues resolved at the Federal Convention in 1787. Founding Father James Madison argued that the Electoral College would ensure that small states had a role in federal elections - and that Southern states were not disadvantaged by the North's "disproportion of qualified voters" (slaves could not vote).

Today, opponents such as Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri say this no longer makes sense. "We rely on the popular vote for virtually every other election in America, except the presidential election," says Senator Durbin.

However, anyone looking for a quick resolution should note that this provision has been the object of more attempts at amending the Constitution than any other in US history. "Of some 11,000 constitutional amendments proposed over the past 200 years, this is the most frequent," says Senate Historian Richard Baker.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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