- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 17, 2002

The Senate yesterday passed an election overhaul bill that gives the federal government an aggressive role in ensuring states run elections well, sending the bill to the White House for President Bush's signature.

The bill, a reaction to the problems exposed in the 2000 elections, offers states money to get rid of punch-card and lever voting machines, requires them to create a computerized registration system to cut down on fraud and mandates that they provide a means for "provisional" voting if voters show up at polling stations but their names aren't on the rolls.

"Every person who shows up to cast a ballot in every precinct in America is going to be allowed to cast a ballot and never again be asked to step out of line and go home," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat and one of the chief sponsors of the bill.

Senators voted 92-2 in favor of the bill, with Sens. Charles E. Schumer and Hillary Rodham Clinton, both New York Democrats, voting against it. Mr. Schumer had expressed concern that the bill would infringe on New York's voting laws.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer has said the president will sign the measure, which the House passed last week in a 357-48 vote. Eleven House Democrats opposed the bill, with several of them worrying that the ID requirements would make it tougher for some to vote, while 37 Republicans voted against the bill. None of those Republicans spoke during the debate, but some had earlier expressed reservations with the broad federal role.

The bill has seemed close to dead several times during the past 22 months, including in the summer of 2001, when Senate Republicans boycotted a Rules and Administration Committee meeting, objecting to the way Democrats were pushing through their bill. This spring, the Senate floor proceedings ground to a halt as the two sides disputed voter-fraud provisions. And the conference committee charged with hashing out differences between the House and Senate versions seemed stalled at several points.

The bill represents a substantial change in responsibility for elections, which until now has rested mostly with states and localities.

"We're breaking new ground," Mr. Dodd said. "This is the first time in more than 200 years that the federal government is going to take a very proactive involvement in the conduct of elections. The Constitution insisted that both states and the federal government be involved in the election process in this country. But we have only been involved marginally, at best."

But even more than the federal role, observers pointed to the new role for states, which are tasked with ensuring that localities run elections properly.

One observer said the old system was best exemplified by Florida in 2000, when the standard for how many corners of a ballot chad had to be punched out for a vote to count varied from county to county. The new bill would require states to set a statewide standard and give states the responsibility of telling localities how to run elections.

Senate Republicans insisted on provisions to cut down on voter fraud, including a requirement that anyone who registers by mail must at some point prove his or her identity, either during registration or the first time he or she votes.

Yesterday, Republicans illustrated the fraud problem by bringing to the Senate floor a picture of one of a handful of dogs who have been registered and have voted in recent elections.

"This legislation recognizes that illegal votes dilute the value of legally cast votes a kind of disenfranchisement no less serious than not being able to cast a ballot," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican, the champion of the anti-fraud provisions. "If your vote is canceled by the vote of a dog or a dead person, it's as if you did not have a right to vote."

Secretaries of state, who generally are charged with overseeing elections in the states, have endorsed the bill but worry that Congress won't find the money to fund the authorized expenditures. Still, the bill's chief backers say they are committed to demanding the money, and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, has been seen as one of the most stalwart supporters of funding for election reform.


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