Stateline Story

Senate Takes Awkward Step Forward On Election Reform

  • August 03, 2001
  • By Daniel Seligson

The Senate Rules Committee voted 10-0 in favor of an election reform bill authored by its chairman, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. The legislation would mandate minimum standards for states while offering hundreds of millions of dollars for machine, registration and voter education improvements.

The easy passage, however, was marred by the absence of all nine Republicans on the committee, who boycotted the vote after Dodd refused to consider a competing bill put forward by ranking committee Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

What should have been a victory for the bill which has the broad support of civil rights groups, labor unions and organizations for people with disabilities instead laid bare its greatest vulnerability.

It has 51 sponsors, all Democrats and independent Sen. Jim Jeffords. But it has no support from the other side of the aisle. President George W. Bush, who favors retaining state control over elections, will likely oppose it. And the Republican-controlled House, now considering its own bipartisan approach to election reform in September, will almost certainly take a different tack.

Dodd said he was "deeply saddened" by the Republicans' refusal to attend the mark-up.

Analysts say Dodd's bill will likely be used as a bargaining chip this fall to move future pieces of Senate and House legislation closer to what most Democrats are seeking more federal guidance over elections in the wake of the 2000 presidential election.

On the same day as the committee vote, The Constitution Project Forum on Election Reform, a Georgetown Law School and foundation-funded task force, released its recommendations for election reform.

It offered a few of the same suggestions contained in a report released by the National Task Force on Federal Election Reform, a group chaired by former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Those include:

  • statewide registration databases that allow instant, real-time access from local polling places;
  • the use of provisional ballots for voters who believe they are registered but whose names are not found on registration rolls;
  • federal grants for states to use for registration upgrades, machine upgrades, poll worker training or voter education;
  • and a new federal clearinghouse for election information that will devise machine standards and administer federal election grants.

The Constitution Project parts ways with the Carter/Ford commission on a number of issues, however. It did not adopt any measures to expand participation, such as making election day a holiday. It did not suggest the media refrain from making projections of winners before polls close. And it discouraged the practices of no-excuse absentee voting, early voting or internet voting as destructive to the "community spirit" of elections.