Bold new plan for US elections

Voting on Veterans Day is one of the recommendations from a commission headed by Presidents Ford and Carter.

In 2004, Americans may very well be voting on Veterans Day, taking a federal holiday to choose their next president. It would be a radical departure for many people who now stand in long lines before or after work - or who don't find the time to vote at all.

The holiday idea is one of several bold recommendations made to President Bush yesterday by a bipartisan commission headed by former Presidents Ford and Carter. The report is the most ambitious attempt yet to fix a system that last fall took 36 days and a decision by the US Supreme Court to decide who would be president.

While the changes won't make American electoral politics foolproof, experts say it could help prevent some of the irregularities that occurred in Florida - and would mark the biggest election overhaul in 80 years.

The report's principles, which include the setting of uniform statewide election standards, were endorsed by President Bush - which could break a logjam of reform ideas piling up in Congress.

"It's a bold and well-reasoned report that offers several fresh ideas for Congress and deals with virtually every issue people have identified" from the November election, says Christopher Edley, a member of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which produced the report. "It should provide a strong impetus for legislative action."

Indeed, all except two of the 13 recommendations received unanimous endorsement from the commission members, who come from a wide range of ideological backgrounds. It's this consensus, forged by former President Carter in a Camp David-like marathon closing session, that give members hope the work will be adopted.

President Bush has given at least tacit approval of many of the ideas in the report. While White House officials say they don't support every recommendation, the president does support the main principles, including the idea of states taking the primary role in addressing voting problems. Mr. Bush, at a Rose Garden ceremony, said Congress should use the "impressive" report as "guidelines for meaningful reform."

Among the report's recommendations:

• Making election day a federal holiday by moving Veterans Day to the first Tuesday in November during even-numbered years.

• Having Congress establish a federal agency that would set statewide voting standards, but allow the states themselves to figure out how to meet those standards. The rules would include allowing voters to correct errors.

• Having states create statewide systems for voter registration, and allow "provisional" voting. A major complaint in Florida was that many African-Americans, who claimed they were registered voters, were turned away at the polls.

The recommendation would allow such voters to go ahead and cast a ballot, with a follow-up check on their eligibility. This is already done in Los Angeles County and Washington State.

• Calling for a voluntary news blackout of election results until 11 p.m. Eastern time.

• Encouraging Congress to adopt legislation that simplifies absentee voting, and states to restore the voting rights of felons who have served their sentences.

• Providing states with $300 million to $400 million over several years in federal funding to upgrade voting equipment, with states matching that amount.

This falls considerably short of a $3.5 billion measure that the Senate Rules Committee is expected to consider tomorrow.

Interestingly, the commission does not recommend eliminating punch-card voting machines, which resulted in so many invalid ballots in Florida. In fact, it does not recommend one kind of voting technology over another, leaving that decision to the states.

"The commission found that it's unwise to get into picking winners and losers among competing private technology sellers," says Philip Zelikow, the executive director. "We thought it was much wiser to set the standard of performance every jurisdiction must meet, and give them the chance how to get to that standard."

While optical scanning machines appear to be the wave of the future, the commission found they present problems for the visually impaired. And while punch-card systems seem to be universally criticized, newer machines spit back over- or under-voted ballots and allow the voter the opportunity to correct a potential mistake.

Norman Ornstein, a member of another "blue-ribbon" panel that's coming out with election reform ideas later this week, says consensus is beginning to form around various ideas, including the need to upgrade voting machinery and registration information, as well as provisional voting and expanded voting hours.

Still, he points to one area of contention that also divided the Carter-Ford commission - whether the federal government should mandate change, or merely provide the financial incentives for change. The commission did not settle that question, though the president, for one, doesn't support mandated change, a White House spokesman says.

"This is where the larger battle will occur," says Mr. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. He points out that Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Conn., who will begin markup on his election-reform bill Thursday, supports mandates, as do minorities. "They are extremely skeptical of whether the states are truly interested in acting in this area," he says.

Another area of disagreement is whether election day should be on a holiday, as the commission recommends, or on a weekend. Experts differ on whether voting on Veterans Day would increase turnout. While some Americans might be tempted to turn a Tuesday holiday into a four-day weekend - and not vote at all - many others would be freed up to vote.

Liz Marlantes contributed to this report.

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