Activists Call For Greater Federal Election Role

Civil and disability rights leaders want the federal government to take a more active role in elections, which would overturn a tradition of state and local control over voting.

Testifying at a hearing of the National Commission on Federal Election Reform at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library on May 24, advocates of an expanded federal role in the electoral process evoked the name of LBJ and the landmark Voting Rights Act he shepherded.

The commission is a private, foundation-funded bipartisan organization co-chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. It was created following last year's presidential election difficulties to try to forge a national consensus on election reform

"Lyndon B. Johnson was the principal architect of voting rights," said Pamela Karlan, a law professor at Stanford University. "The Voting Rights Act is the model for federal action."

The act was passed in 1965 after Congress found evidence of overt discrimination at the polls, including literacy tests and widespread intimidation of minorities. It ensured federal protection for minorities, based on both ethnicity and language. It also established federal monitoring and required some states, primarily in the South, to receive "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before instituting any changes in election laws.

In light of problems that surfaced in Florida, Missouri and Mississippi in last year's presidential election, Karlan and others said, the Voting Rights Act should be dusted off and used to justify a new set of standards for elections including equal access to voting machines for those with disabilities, mandatory use of provisional ballots to allow voters left off registration rolls to cast ballots and the restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their prison terms. Without substantive changes, they said, the rights of disenfranchised voters cannot be guaranteed.

James Gashel of the National Federation of the Blind urged the commission to call for mandatory use of voting machines that allow the blind and visually-impaired to hear their choices and receive an audio confirmation of their vote.

Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington, D.C. bureau, said the federal government should harness the power of the Voting Rights Act to fix election systems in states that are not only inconsistent, but in some places "evil, immoral and undemocratic." He cited incidents of black men being turned away from polls after poll workers asked them if they had served time in jail, polling places in minority-heavy districts that opened late and instances of police intimidation under the guise of "keeping the peace" in largely black precincts.

Advocates of a greater federal role were at odds with state lawmakers, voting officials and governors, a majority of whom have asked Congress to stay clear of any election dictates that would infringe on their traditional though not Constitutional role.

Arkansas Secretary of State Sharon Priest, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, told the commission her organization supports statewide standards, but wants the federal government to stay out of election administration. A number of other state government organizations have called for similar restraint.

Priest said secretaries of state around the country want the government to become a "partner" in elections, offering financial and technical assistance but keeping in place a flexible system that allows states a free reign in administering elections.

States need help recruiting and retaining the more than one million poll workers who make up the nation's largest one-day employment force, Priest said. They also require financial help from the federal government for voter education, new machines and updated statewide registration databases.

Commission member Christopher Edley, a Harvard Law School professor who was a White House adviser under President Clinton, was unmoved.

"I haven't heard very clearly [from state election officials] what safeguards are in place to make sure what happened in Florida would not happen in their states," Edley said.