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Election Reform At Mercy Locals*

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Election reform at mercy of elected officials Weighed down with baggage and stymied by gridlock, the drive to change the system has lost its momentum

By Jim Drinkard


WASHINGTON -- The push to reform the way the nation runs elections, the hottest issue in politics a scant three months ago, has stalled on Capitol Hill.

States waiting for money to buy new voting equipment are likely to wait a year or more for help, if they get it at all. And deeper problems with the training of poll workers and the procedures followed by election officials appear lost in a thicket of partisan mistrust.

''There are suspicions on both sides,'' says Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., chairman of the Senate panel with responsibility for election issues. ''In the end, we may conclude that it's not a major thing for the federal government to be doing -- that we don't have the funds to completely revolutionize the American voting system, even if we knew what to do.''

Adds Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., ''It's not at all clear yet that help will be on the way from the federal government.''

The gridlock continues despite new evidence of the impact of voting problems in the 2000 presidential elections. A review of Florida's presidential ballots by USA TODAY, The Miami Herald and Knight Ridder newspapers showed that thousands of voters -- a potentially decisive bloc in last year's presidential election had their ballots disqualified because of confusion, technical problems and unclear policies.

Some on Capitol Hill are seeking to revive the issue. Last week, the Republican chairman of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio, agreed with the panel's senior Democrat, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, to produce legislation by year's end. But they face difficult obstacles.

Below the surface, experts say, is a dirty little secret: Those with political power in both parties don't want to upset the system that got them where they are.

''I have come to the conclusion that the only way you can do anything about elections is to take all the hired guns of both parties and lock them in a house, and keep them out of sight until you've resolved it,'' says former representative Al Swift, D-Wash., who until 1994 served on the House panel that oversees election matters. ''They are totally paranoid, they believe that any change will hurt them, and they are often flat wrong.''

Among the signs of trouble for election reform:

* House Democratic and Republican leaders were unable to agree on creation of a task force to study the issue and recommend reform. The sticking point: whether the panel would be divided evenly, or reflect the GOP's narrow majority in the House.

* The issue has become a magnet for groups that see it as a way to pursue their own agendas. Civil rights groups believe the 2000 election was fraught with discrimination against minority voters, and they want to strengthen voting rights. Disability groups want to make sure Congress does more to make the polls accessible to those with disabilities. Conservative groups want more done to weed ineligible voters from registration rolls. Each issue is freighted with partisan political implications. Minorities and the disabled, for example, tend to vote Democratic.

* Republicans fear that debate on the issue will lead to recriminations about November's election and questions about the legitimacy of President Bush's victory. Bush has not made reform a priority. His budget included no money for reform.

* Pressure to standardize voting equipment and practices is being fiercely resisted by local election officials, who jealously guard their control over the administration of elections. At the same time, makers of voting equipment are lobbying to make sure any legislative fix is friendly to their brand of voting machine.

''The reality is that most significant things are not going to get done by 2002,'' the next federal election year, says David King, a Harvard political scientist who chairs a task force of a national election-reform commission headed by former presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. ''People will be watching those elections expecting fraud and vote suppression, and they will find both. Then the window of opportunity for policy change will open again.''

With hope waning for action in the capital, many are looking to state legislatures. But only a few states have taken the lessons of the 2000 election to heart.

Florida adopted a comprehensive bill that gets rid of punch-card voting and sets new standards for conducting recounts. Georgia and Maryland have passed major bills. In many more states, progress is sputtering. About 1,600 bills have been introduced in state legislatures, but only a tiny fraction of those are being enacted. ''If not dead in the water, it's certainly treading water in the states right now,'' says Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO labor federation.

''I am concerned that nothing will be in place to ensure the integrity of the 2002 elections,'' says Wade Henderson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. ''What is missing in this debate is a sense of urgency, a sense of anger, a sense of real dismay at the 2000 election.'' The issue of election reform is beginning to look as if it belongs to a class of hotly partisan matters that have been tangled in Congress for years. They include campaign-finance reform, the use of statistical sampling in official Census calculations and the motor-voter law that allows citizens to register to vote when they get their driver's license. What the issues have in common is the potential for affecting the electoral fortunes of political parties and their officeholders. ''There is tension because the outcome of elections might be influenced,'' says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research group for minority issues. ''People with power use that power to keep people out. . . . I am not optimistic about there being reform.''

Beyond the partisan strains, says disability rights advocate Jim Dickson, there is an even larger force that threatens to stymie election reform: the power of incumbency. ''The incumbent only wants those people who have already voted to vote,'' says Dickson, who has worked on election issues in Congress for two decades. ''It is really about protecting incumbency. But since they can't say that, they will sort of stumble into partisan gridlock as a way to ensure the status quo. It will look like gridlock, but it's really cooperation.''

Alex Keyssar, a Duke University political scientist, says that in a system dominated by two major parties, it's only natural that the rules governing elections would be designed more for the convenience and benefit of the parties than for the ease and accessibility of voters. ''There is a lot of commonality of interest among the 'ins,' '' he says. ''You want a predictable electorate. If you don't have that, you get the election of Jesse Ventura.'' Ventura was a minor-party candidate who, aided by a state law that allows voters to register on Election Day, beat a Democrat and a Republican in 1998 to become governor of Minnesota.

The Democratic Party clearly sees the issue as an opportunity to energize supporters. The party has set up a Voting Rights Institute that plans hearings to draw attention to the civil rights aspects of last year's voting failures. A news conference in Washington recently made it clear that the effort isn't about compromise.

At that event on the steps of the Supreme Court, Rep. Maxine Waters, a California Democrat who heads her party's election-reform task force, denounced Republicans for ignoring the fallout from the 2000 election.

''The Republicans are afraid of this issue,'' she said. ''They know if we fix this system, we are going to invite a lot more people to the polls -- and, yes, they are going to be Democrats.''

Party Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Republicans ''should be ashamed of themselves,'' as a supporter waved a sign declaring, ''Our votes have been stolen.''

The Democrats have been using election reform as a fundraising draw, as well. One recent solicitation letter from McAuliffe begins: ''Are you angry about the outcome of the presidential election? You should be. For you and I know this: if Katherine Harris, Jeb Bush and Jim Baker had not tampered with the results, Al Gore would be president today, and George W. Bush would be back in Austin.''

Keyssar, the Duke political scientist, says problems are inherent in any system that leaves reforms to be made by those with a stake in the outcome. ''The history of political parties in this country is that each party believes fervently in the right to vote of its own supporters, and is not too sure about everybody else.''

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