Stateline Story

Tracking Election Reform: Back in a Holding Pattern

Its summer in Washington, and the pace of life and legislation is slowing down. The Democratic Senate has placed election reform in a holding pattern perhaps until late this year - despite a new emphasis on the topic.

Jim Forbes, a spokesman for House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, said campaign finance reform and other issues will keep election reform bills on the backburner throughout Washington's muggy summer. Senate leaders will also likely take their time hammering out an agreement on a patient's bill of rights legislation through at least early July.

Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., on Thursday (6/21) announced his commitment to "see election reform enacted before the end of this year." The Senate Rules Committee, which he chairs, will hold two hearings on the topic this week. Preparing a bill for a vote, however, could take as long five months. Though aides could not confirm it, some election insiders say Dodd could be waiting for a public relations slam-dunk the passage of an election reform bill on Nov. 7 exactly one year after the nation's closest and most controversial presidential election. There are reasons to wait, however. Policy reports on election practices and proposals for reform from independent groups will soon be available to lawmakers, giving them another point of reference besides the General Accounting Office and other in-house government research organizations.

The National Commission on Federal Election Reform, a group chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford, and the Constitution Project's Election Task Force, will present their findings over the next two months.

The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution has not waited to release its blueprint for action. In a policy brief authored by Thomas Mann, the left-of-center think-tank asserts it is no surprise Congress has moved slowly to adopt federal election reform.

"As eager as federal officials may be to improve the election system, state and local authorities are just as determined to retain the freedom to adopt and administer election systems that respond to local conditions and the preferences of their constituents," Mann wrote.

Mann recommends a limited but constructive federal role in elections, including the creation of a new agency to administer grants for localities to improve elections and develop voluntary standards for voting procedures, echoing the sentiments of a number of centrist Democratic and Republican lawmakers.

A number of state legislatures, however, have remained active. In election reform news around the country:

  • California's State Senate will take up a bill in the coming weeks that could decide whether voters will cast ballots on a $300 million bond issue that would fund the upgrade of voting machines throughout the state. Assembly Bill 56, which passed the state Assembly by a whopping 71 to 4 vote, would put the issue on statewide ballots in March 2002. Los Angeles County is the nation's largest user of punch cards, the troubled system that has received much of the blame for problems during tallying of votes in Florida's Nov. 2000 election.
  • A governor-appointed task force in New York State released a report Wednesday (6/20) calling for the state to replace voting machines, create a statewide voter registration database and increase pay for poll workers and election inspectors. The bipartisan panel, appointed by Gov. George Pataki, wants the state to spend at least $25 million on voting equipment. Pataki said in a statement he would "work with the Senate and the Assembly to get legislation passed to implement the recommendations of this report." The Albany Times-Union reported New York's Senate majority leader, a Republican, and Speaker of the House, a Democrat, have signaled their support for the report's findings. If the legislature approves the bill, however, the money would not be available until after local election races this fall.

Virginia's legislature appointed a committee to study restoring the voting rights of felons a heated topic in a state where an estimated one in four black men cannot cast ballots for crimes ranging from violent offenses to writing bad checks. According to the The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot, current state law only permits governors to restore voting rights after those who have served sentences petition. The newspaper noted out of 270,000 Virginians banned from voting because of convictions, Old Dominion governors for more than a decade have restored the rights of only 122 people a year. Amending the system would require an amendment to the state's constitution, meaning any change to the system would take at least four years.