Election reform efforts took a sharply partisan turn Tuesday (5/1) as Democratic Party leaders launched their own task force on the issue after accusing Republicans of foot-dragging.
Democratic National chairman Terry McAuliffe announced the creation of the Voting Rights Institute, a party-funded entity that will examine voting irregularities, registration practices and list maintenance, accessible voting machines and ballot counting procedures.
The group, he said, would hold four hearings around the country in May and June, beginning with a visit to Palm Beach, Florida.
Flanked by Democratic House members, McAuliffe also used the occasion to blast Republicans and President George W. Bush for failing to act quickly on election reform.
"There was not one penny for election reform in [Bush's] budget," McAuliffe said. "This is the party that considers Abraham Lincoln as their founder. Abraham Lincoln fought to the rights of all citizens. They should be ashamed of themselves that they are denying people the right to vote."
Party members carried signs and chanted slogans on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court for the event, which in many ways mimicked protests in front of the building in December as justices deliberated Bush v. Gore and ultimately determined the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.
The gathering was a far cry from Capitol Hill's most recent election reform event, a hearing in the House Administration Committee in which state Republican and Democratic leaders signaled broad agreement about how best to change elections.
Still, election reform efforts in Congress have sputtered so far this year amid partisan disputes. On Capitol Hill, more than 30 bills introduced by both Republicans and Democrats at the beginning of the year have failed to generate momentum.
A plan for a House task force to study the issue was scrapped after the two parties could not agree on its make-up. The Senate Commerce committee held two hearings in March; the House Administration Committee held the first election reform hearing late last month.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said while Republicans have not directly objected to any election reform measures or bills, they might be stalling to let the issue die out.
"If we don't do something by the summer recess, we'll have trouble getting anything signed into law in time for 2002," Hoyer said. "The good news is we haven't heard anyone say they are against this, but by a certain point in time, inaction would have to viewed as opposition."
Perhaps the harshest words came from Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., a non-voting member of Congress who said Republicans fear a profound power shift could result from mending the nation's elections.
"Republicans are stalling election reform until after 2002 because they know they won't be in charge if they do. They know they'll lose if they do," Norton said.
The Democrats' effort will join an already crowded field of task forces, researchers and commissions looking into ways to repair elections.
But this initiative has a different meaning, at least to those on the other side of the aisle. Republicans say such a partisan effort on what should be a bipartisan issue could be damaging to future progress. They also point to a refusal by Democratic leaders to accept a bipartisan election reform task force proposed by Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, D-Ill.
"The Speaker reached out to Democrats in the House and tried to deal with them on a bipartisan basis. They rejected that," said Trent Duffy, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. "Creating a partisan committee isn't going to cool emotions on this issue. It may heat them up so much so that it could threaten bipartisan efforts in the House."