Stateline Story

Tracking Election Reform: Movement In Congress

Congress' efforts to pass federal election reform have received new life after House and Senate leaders agreed on the framework for legislation.

But the newfound momentum could be tempered. Leaders in the voting equipment industry said Congress has already taken so much time that all of the companies working together to produce high-tech machines would be unlikely to meet demand.

Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Torricelli, D-N.J. and Sam Brownback, R-Kan. announced legislation Tuesday (5/15) providing $2.5 billion to states that agree to follow federal standards on voting machines and registration procedures. It would create a bipartisan blue ribbon panel to recommend best practices and establish a new federal agency, the Election Administration Commission.

"This legislation combines the strongest elements of the two leading reform bills on the table into a compromise measure that has the broad support needed to break through congressional gridlock," Schumer said.

The announcement came days after the two top members of the House Administration Committee, Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the panel's chairman, and Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the ranking Democrat, said they had reached a similar compromise that will result in a bill that could mirror the Senate's version.

While the efforts might succeed in pushing reform through Congress, it might already be too late to for a number of states to get the new machines they would purchase with federal dollars.

William Welsh II, chairman of Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, told the House Administration Committee Thursday (5/17) that the industry would be hard-pressed to build enough machines by 2002 or even 2004 elections.

"Is the voting machine industry capable of replacing outdated machines? The answer I would give you today is no. Time is our enemy and currently we are wasting a tremendous amount of time in dialogue and too little implementing," Welsh said.

Welsh, along with leaders from a dozen other voting machine manufacturers, told the panel that foot-dragging by Congress on funding election reform initiatives could stall the implementation of new machines by years. Declining revenues and budget shortfalls have states focusing on more pressing needs than state-of-the-art voting equipment.

"Road graders and snow plows will win every time," Welsh said.

One state dealing with such a conundrum is California, where Gov. Gray Davis' revised budget slashed a proposed $40 million program to upgrade the state's voting machines.

"We had a shortfall of about $5 billion that we had to close. We had a bunch of things we had to cut and that was one of them," said Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for the state's Department of Finance. 

In other election reform news:

  • The Texas Senate Thursday (5/17) passed a modest bill that would prohibit counties from purchasing new punch card voting machines. The bill would also encourage, but not require, counties to purchase more technologically advanced voting equipment, The Dallas Morning News reported. Only 14 of the state's 254 counties use punch cards.
  • Lawmakers in New York have reached a preliminary agreement to adopt a statewide voter registration database, but stopped short of calling for mandatory upgrades of the state's voting machines to optical scan or touch-screen systems. The New York Times reported both houses have budgeted between $25 million and $30 million for election reform.