- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

The bipartisan coalition behind the Senate election-reform bill collapsed yesterday after Democrats moved to cut out an anti-fraud provision, and Republicans then blocked the measure's progress.

The underlying bill, which senators voted unanimously Tuesday to rename the Martin Luther King Jr. Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act, would help states pay for new voting machines to replace older ones, particularly the infamous punch-card machines from the 2000 presidential election. The measure also would impose minimum requirements for how states and localities conduct elections.

But in exchange for supporting those new mandates, Republicans demanded that the bill include stronger anti-fraud language including permission for registrars to clean up the rolls and a requirement that those registering by mail submit proof of their identities before voting the first time.

"It's just as much a violation of civil rights to have your vote diluted by an illegal vote as it is to have your vote denied," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, who said mail-in registration frequently is used by those who commit voter fraud.

Democrats, however, charged that the provision would gut the advances they won with the "motor-voter" law and would erects new barriers to voting.

"The feeling among the civil rights community is that people use the excuse of voter fraud … as a way to prevent people of color, immigrants, urban dwellers not to vote," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and one of the chief opponents of the anti-fraud language. He offered an amendment to the bill that would let the signatures of voters count as acceptable identification. But Republicans said signatures alone aren't enough.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, has scheduled a vote for cloture, which needs 60 votes to end the Republican filibuster, for tomorrow. However, the impasse over the anti-fraud language has imperiled chances that the chamber will pass election-reform legislation.

"We are at an impasse and I don't know what else can be done," Mr. Daschle said. "I know that they've tried to find ways to compromise this legislation. There doesn't appear to be any more ability to move one way or the other."

But with 46 Republicans supporting the anti-fraud language in a vote yesterday, it is likely they have the votes to block debate and Mr. Daschle said he then would pull the bill and move on to other business.

Yesterday's action is just the latest part of the bill's bumpy ride.

It passed the Senate Rules Committee in August unanimously, but only because Republicans boycotted the meeting. They argued that the bill was partisan and ignored their demand to include the anti-fraud provisions. But without Republican support, Democrats did not have the 60 votes necessary to force a vote on the Senate floor. Hence, over a period of four months Republican and Democratic leaders hashed out a new version of the bill, including anti-fraud provisions, which they brought to the floor two weeks ago.

Republicans charge that for Mr. Schumer, who has been part of the four months of negotiations, to now offer an amendment that guts the agreement is a betrayal.

"I'm looking around, seeing if I've still got a watch on. My pocket's been picked for sure," Mr. Bond said.

He said Democrats' change of heart was proof that they had received new marching orders from civil rights groups and Democratic Party officials: "They yanked the chain and everybody on the other side lined up."

But Mr. Schumer and Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat and another vocal opponent of the fraud provision, said they always had intended to offer their amendment. Mr. Wyden's home state votes largely by mail, and he said the Republican-backed provisions would harm that. His fellow Oregonian, Sen. Gordon H. Smith, was the only Republican to vote against the provision, joining 49 Democrats and one independent.

Hillary Shelton, director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Washington bureau, said the NAACP has filed several lawsuits in states that require identification at the polls because they have found the requirement is applied selectively, in which white voters are allowed to vote without identification while black voters are turned away.

The House passed an election-reform bill last year, and the two bills are roughly similar. Both bills offer money to the states to buy out old election machines and for election mailings and training poll workers the Senate offers $3.5 billion, while the House authorizes $2.65 billion. Both bills set benchmarks for the states to meet, such as requiring provisional voting for someone who goes to the polls but finds his name isn't listed but the House bill allows states to opt out of the requirement if they have an alternative proposal in place, while the Senate does not allow that.

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