- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 26, 2002

Senators return from a weeklong recess today to pick up where they left off on punch-card voting machines, dimpled ballots and election reform.
But the debate could turn back to part of campaign-finance reform. Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, wants to pursue an amendment to the election-reform bill that would force television stations to offer federal political candidates the lowest possible advertising rates for broadcast ads.
The provision passed the Senate 69-31 last year as part of a campaign-finance-reform package, but the House rejected it in its own campaign-finance bill, which was passed two weeks ago.
Opposition is organizing in the Senate, though. Sen. Conrad Burns, Montana Republican, is the lead signature on a letter calling on his colleagues to oppose the amendment, his spokesman said. Opponents, including the National Association of Broadcasters, argue that the amendment won't decrease the cost of campaigns, it will just allow candidates to run more ads, crowding out businesses and state and local political candidates wishing to run ads at the same time.
Mr. Torricelli's amendment also threatens to break apart the bipartisan coalition that the bill's chief sponsors Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, and Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican have maintained.
The underlying election bill sets minimum standards for states in conducting elections and establishes funding to aid states in buying new voting machines and for training election workers.
The House passed an election-reform bill last year, and the two bills go in roughly the same direction, though the Senate bill dictates more specific requirements of the states while the House bill sets standards for conducting elections, but leaves it to the states to meet those standards.
The Senate bill authorizes $3.5 billion in spending over four years, while the House bill calls for $2.65 billion over three years. President Bush's proposed budget includes $400 million a year for the next three years.
So far, senators have rejected major amendments to the bill from both sides of the aisle, which Mr. Dodd said could have broken apart the coalition.
On the one side, Mr. Burns sponsored an amendment to allow registrars to purge voting lists of voters who haven't voted in two successive federal elections, or four years, rather than the eight years the bill calls for now.
"Not purging leads to mischief. It invites fraud," Mr. Burns said.
But the amendment failed 55-40, with opponents saying that purging the rolls so frequently could end up disenfranchising some of those who truly want to vote.
"Citizens from time to time decide, for whatever reason, they do not want to participate in an election or two," Mr. Dodd said.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada sponsored an amendment to allow felons who had served their time and completed probation to have their voting rights restored in federal elections.
But opponents said it should remain left to the states to determine when and if felons should have their rights restored. The amendment failed 63-31.
Senators from both parties have repeatedly said the bill is not about the 2000 election, but senators have already had one debate on whether to force states to replace punch-card voting machines the type of machines that caused "hanging chads" to become a focus in the five-week-long Florida presidential recount.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, sponsored an amendment that would have forced states to change the way they handle punch-card ballots. Opponents, though, said many of the 64,337 precincts that used punch-card machines have no problems, and often perform better than precincts with more sophisticated machines. The amendment failed 50-44.

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