Stateline Story

Budget Resolution Ignores Election Reform

  • April 09, 2001
  • By Daniel Seligson

Neither President Bush's or Congress budget blueprint includes a dime for election reform initiatives.

Senators nixed an 11th hour, Democrat-backed spending plan that would have allotted $500 million for national election reform efforts, moments before a deadline to vote on the fiscal 2002 budget resolution. The House resolution also omitted any mention of election reform. Though non-binding, budget resolutions serve as the basis for the work of Capitol Hill appropriators.

"For all the support there seems to be for a grant program, the money doesn't seem to be in anyone's plans," said Alysoun McLaughlin, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL).

Senate Republicans rejected an election reform amendment as they rushed to complete work on the resolution while preserving as much of Bush's proposed tax cut as they could. In the furor, the election reform amendment went down quietly on a voice vote.

While the absence of any earmarked funds in either Bush's budget or the congressional plan, it does not signal the end of the issue on (Capitol Hill), said one analyst.

"It's not a (dead issue) just because it's not in the budget resolution. We'll look to see how it does in the appropriations process," said Zoe Hudson, executive director of the Constitution Project's Election Reform Initiative, a task force of election experts that urged Senators to set aside funds for reform.

"I think it's disappointing but it doesn't indicate anything about Congress' intent at this point," Hudson said.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill last week, a congressional study showed ballot mistakes by poor and minority voters plummeted with the introduction of new machines. Released Thursday (4/5), the study revealed the rate of spoiled ballots in Detroit fell from 3.1 percent in the 1996 election to 1.1 percent in 2000, when the city switched from punch cards to higher-tech optical scan machines.

Precinct-level optical scanner machines reject ballots with over-votes or other mistakes, giving voters a second chance to fix their work.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who requested the study, said Detroit's example shows machines can make a dramatic difference in improving the accuracy and integrity of elections.

"Detroit's experience has nationwide significance," Waxman said. "Detroit is the poorest major city in the United States and it has one of the highest minority populations. If Detroit can reduce its undercount rate by two-thirds, other areas can too."

Detroit spent $3.5 million to purchase the optical scan machines and another $100,000 to educate voters. In the minority-heavy and poverty-ridden precincts, the efforts paid off, with error rates in some sections of the city falling from 7 percent in 1996 to less than 1 percent in 2000. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who represents Detroit, co-sponsored a bill with Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., offering at least $500 million in federal funds for localities to purchase new voting equipment.

In other election reform news:

  • And the winner is...still George W. Bush. A Florida presidential election recount of nearly 65,000 contested ballots released last week (4/4) by The Miami Herald and USA Today found Bush's margin of victory of 537 votes would have tripled in almost every recount scenario argued by both. But the controversy surrounding Florida's election remains far from over. An analysis by the two newspapers of votes in minority-dominated precincts found black voters were four times as likely to have their ballots disqualified as white voters. The analysis found a 7.7 percent spoiled ballot rate in precincts with black majorities compared to a 1.9 percent rate in precincts with white majorities. Earlier this year, the NAACP sued Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris on behalf of black voters, claiming punch card machines with higher rates of error were used at a disproportionately high rate in precincts with black majorities.
  • An election reform bill in Ohio now under consideration in the state legislature would take the mystery out of punch card counts by offering guidelines for counting infamous hanging chads.The bill, which passed the Ohio House, would define a chad hanging by two corners or fewer as a valid vote. Three or more attached corners would not demonstrate voter intent.
  • State-of-the-art touch screen voting machines will be shelved in a local Arkansas election next month. Officials in Pulaski County said paper ballots would replace the machines when voters return to the polls for local elections on May 8. Ofificals told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that problems plagued the high-tech systems on arrival. The first batch was damaged during shipping and another order came late. A few machines had faulty touch-screens that made it difficult for voters to register their choices, the paper reported. The machines are expected to return to service in time for a September school board election after representatives from Nebraska-based Election Systems & Software finish repairs and trouble-shooting.
  • High-tech voting machines that allow second chance voting came under fire by Illinois Senate Republicans. The Chicago Tribune reported that GOP lawmakers used their majority muscle to pass a bill banning election officials in Cook County from setting machines to reject ballots with under-votes. Cook County has been the center of a war over voting technology since elections last February, when a judge allowed the use of ballot-rejecting technology in municipal elections, over the objection of Republicans. Republican Senate leaders said flagging under-votes an often intentional act violates the right to cast a ballot in secret and amounts to election officials questioning a voter's intent. Chicago's Board of Elections asked for machines to identify under-votes after looking at the results of the Nov. 2000 election, in which an unusually high 7 percent of Chicago voters failed to make a choice for president.
  • A Colorado House committee last week killed a bill that would have introduced widespread voting-by-mail to the state. The bill, which passed the Senate, was rejected by Republican lawmakers in the House State Affairs Committee by a 5-4, party-line vote, The Denver Post reported. Currently, Oregon is the only state to use voting by mail for national elections. Lawmakers in nine other states are considering similar bills