Election Officials Worry About Nature Of Reform

For the past 23 years, Wendy Noren has seen punch cards, chads, voter mistakes, poll worker errors, new technology and recounts.

The Boone County, Mo. election official has watched election reform initiatives develop in state houses, county supervisor hearings and city council meetings since the November 2000 election. But she's particularly worried about what sort of election "solution" might work its way through Congress and potentially change the way she must do her job.

"My belief is there's no perfect system. That's my concern about rushing into one system or trying to impose one idea across the country," she said in a telephone interview. "Frankly, I'm not sure that there is one system yet that is best for the entire country."

A number of bills now being considered on Capitol Hill could force states to adopt minimum standards to qualify for federal funds to update voting equipment. While it would not necessarily require a uniform voting system, Noren fears it would at least begin to move the country in that direction.

Like many who hold similar positions nationwide, Noren hopes Washington foots the tab for election reform while showing some restraint to keep elections a matter of local control. While states might want government money, they fear government control.

Most state and local officials acknowledge that Congress can require counties and municipalities to adopt minimum voting standards to receive government money. Even the most vocal supporters of states' rights concede state control over national races is a tradition, not a constitutional right.

A General Accounting Office report issued last month stated Congress has "authority of over both congressional and presidential elections." While local and state races occur much more frequently, election officials say they cannot haul out different types of voting machines for different types of elections.

" I can safely say that every state probably feels this is an area where the federal government can regulate, but really shouldn't. When it comes down to it, elections are state and local events and the authority should be delegated to secretaries of state and local officials," said Susan Frederick, director of the National Conference of State Legislature's Law and Justice Committee.

Frederick, who also serves on the organization's bipartisan task force on election reform, said members of her panel would ask for flexibility.

"We would like to see a funding system where if you don't need machines, you may use money for voter education purposes. But to give a one-size-fits-all solution given the wide diversity is oversimplifying the issue," Frederick said.

Some election experts contend Congress might not have the hands-on experience or know-how to implement effective election reform. Doug Lewis, director of the Houston-based Election Center, a non-partisan, non-profit warned that lawmakers on Capitol Hill might be relying too heavily on misguided media reports than hard facts about election ills. Congress wants new machines, because media reports showed machines causing problems in Florida.

"Policy makers are following what they read in news coverage written by people who did not know about the process but did the best they could learning as they went along," Lewis said. "A whole lot of what was reported as fact turns out to be mythology. If they really want to help us fix these things, they have to help us and not work against us. What you want to do is to resolve the issues that people are concerned about, but you want to make sure you fix a real problem and not a mythological one."

For their part, bill sponsors in Congress say they recognize the importance of leaving state and local officials in control of elections. Election officials, after all, oversee supervise and hire poll workers, craft ballots, maintain registration records and tally votes.

But one sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said solutions to voting problems would require more than "throwing money at the problem" without making states adopt at least some federal standard.

Whether Congress will show restraint in the process is unclear, since most of the 30 election reform bills have received little more than passing mention in committees so far this year.

The potential for heavy-handed election reform worries Noren and other local officials, who fear unfunded mandates could create chaos with county budgets.

"What if [Congress] wants us to send out sample ballots to every voter every year? I can't do that with grant money because that money may not be there next year," Noren said. "Once you start doing those things, you can't stop."