Roll Call

Election Reform: Six Principles Could Bridge Differences

A critical test of American democracy this past year has been our ability to convert outrage and embarrassment over the 2000 presidential vote count into significant improvements in administration of elections

Although many advocates and analysts chafed at the slow pace of action, the House passed a bill late last year, and the Senate is expected to approve its own bill next week. These two measures share broad areas of consensus. The challenge is to reconcile these two versions of reform as quickly and pragmatically as possible and not get sidetracked by rehashing old grievances and partisan suspicions.

The areas of agreement are striking. The federal government will finally pick up a share of the costs of administering federal elections. Voter registration systems will be modernized. Provisional voting will be guaranteed for anyone whose registration is in question on Election Day. New voting equipment providing citizens with an opportunity to correct mistakes will replace outdated and error-prone systems. Statewide standards for ballot design, valid votes and recounts will be developed. Access to secret balloting for disabled citizens will be increased. Voter education and information initiatives will be launched.

The remaining differences should be resolved with a clear eye toward their comparative advantages and ease of implementation by federal, state and local officials. There are six essential areas for resolution.

First, the House bill makes a strong commitment to long-term support of research and development on new voting systems. The Senate should readily agree that the final bill ought to build on that commitment.

Second, the House ($2.7 billion) and the Senate ($3.5 billion) are close enough on what Congress should spend; they can split the difference, but the case for the larger amount is strong. An equally important question is what election officials may do with that money. The House list is so long there may be little to show at the end of the day. The Senate's shorter list has the opposite vice—it is too restrictive. Taking the best from each, Congress should enable states to make long overdue capital investments in improved registration and voting systems. To make good on that investment, funds should be available for educating officials and voters about those improved systems.

Third, the House would distribute funds by a formula based on each state's population. The Senate would have a nationwide competition among the states. Turning the entire effort into a competition will require a larger federal apparatus and delay distribution of needed funds. Every state needs basic election improvements. The House has the better idea.

Fourth, the Senate would require each state to develop a plan, in consultation with local officials and subject to public comment before adoption, that describes how federal funds will be used. The House would not require states to explain, even to their own citizens and local governments, how they will use federal funds. Everyone will have to hope for the best. On this point, the advantage goes to the Senate. Involving local governments and citizens in preparing state plans will foster robust debate within each state, helping to assure that reform is delivered wisely and fairly.

Fifth, on no subject has there been as much heat as on mandates. Should there be a federal stick to require reform to go with federal carrots to induce it? In fact, both bills agree there should be national requirements on key matters such as computerized statewide registration and provisional voting. The House generally reserves for states the right to choose implementing methods. The Senate provides more specification. Compromise is possible if each requirement is looked at separately on its merits. On at least one there is now broad agreement based on a fundamental principle. Voting-machine technology should be harnessed to enable disabled citizens to cast secret ballots on their own, as is our common right. And no further delay should be brooked in the right to accessible polling places throughout the nation.

Finally, neither chamber has yet offered a good answer on one critical matter. Federal money will not improve elections unless delivered by an effective system for administering the federal role. The House proposes a weak, part-time federal agency surrounded by more than 100 advisers. The Senate proposes a stronger agency. But as it may take a year to set up, the Senate would farm out start-up functions to a Justice Department whose attention is elsewhere.

Both bills would repeat the weakness of the Federal Election Commission by carving up the new election agency between the two political parties, inviting gridlock. To make the national investment in reform count, the House-Senate conference should take a fresh look at the administration of the federal program. A solution could be modeled on the National Science Foundation, coupling a prestigious collegial body with a presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed director who commands broad support and is capable of effectively administering a long-needed national effort to improve elections.