Reform of Voting System Loses Steam on Capitol Hill


ATLANTA -- Nearly five months after the disputed Florida election exposed serious problems in the nation's voting systems, a bipartisan commission seeking reforms finally got down to work.

But meanwhile, Republican and Democratic House leaders on Capitol Hill were poised to pull the plug on their own promised election-reform task force -- after finding bipartisanship hard to come by. And as the sparse attendance attested Monday at the first hearing of an independent panel whose co-chairman are former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, election reform has also lost some of its vogue.

To be sure, some cities, counties and states are moving ahead with their own reforms. Here, Georgia is considering replacing its welter of local systems with more statewide uniformity. But the passage of time since the 2000 election has removed the sense of urgency in many places, especially Congress, while lingering bad feelings between the parties have poisoned discussion. Meanwhile, President Bush is pushing for tax cuts and other priorities; election reform isn't on his agenda.

"Back in December, everybody had the torch lit" for national voting changes, says Tony Sirvello, Houston's administrator of elections. "That torch is not burning as brightly anymore."

Mr. Carter remains hopeful his commission will reignite the issue, and also bridge the political impasse when it offers its recommendations to Congress and the president by September. "My hope is that our voice might be kind of a compromise voice," he said during a break in the hearing at his Carter Center.

Scholars, Ex-Officeholders

The panel's first hearing came between the former president's trips earlier this month to Guyana and next month to Peru -- the sort of countries whose elections he is more accustomed to observing. The commission, sponsored by the New York-based nonprofit research institution Century Foundation and the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, also includes 17 scholars and former officeholders, including senators, congressmen and cabinet secretaries, though several, including Mr. Ford, missed Monday's hearing.

President Bush, meanwhile, has been mostly silent on election reform. He fears a replay of the Florida fight in Congress, and some Democrats, especially black caucus members who believe many black voters were disenfranchised, want nothing less. But "the administration is very well aware of us, and encouraging of us," says the Carter-Ford commission's executive director, historian Philip Zelikow.

For major reforms to have much chance of being enacted, though, Congress must have a role in developing them and a stake in their success. And while the Carter-Ford effort has a luminous roster, "We've got no authority," conceded commission member Bob Michel, a former House Republican leader.

Dozens of election-reform bills have been filed in the House and Senate, many calling for a bipartisan commission that includes lawmakers and White House representatives. None has yet been acted on. In the closely divided Senate, GOP leaders have put off plans to take up election-reform proposals this month because of the press of other issues.

Discord Over Makeup

Late last year, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R., Ill.) said he would name a bipartisan House task force, but Republican and Democratic leaders haven't been able to agree on its makeup: Republicans insist on a one-seat majority; Democrats want an even split. The speaker and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.) are due to decide this week whether to give up.

Rep. Roy Blunt (R., Mo.), a congressional liaison to President Bush, is slated to be chairman of the effort if it ever gets off the ground. For now, though, he was simply a witness at the hearing here, speaking on "legislative strategy" for enacting election reforms and facing questions about the lack of one in Congress. "Feelings have rubbed a little raw from the last election," he told the Carter-Ford panel. If Congress creates no special commission of its own, Mr. Blunt added, "the recommendations of a commission like yours will even be more important."

The commission will consider a range of issues raised last fall: the states' confusing mix of polling times, as well as technology, ballot designs, accessibility for the disabled, voter registration and absentee voting. Also, they will address whether the federal government, for the first time in history, might help states foot the bill for conducting elections. The commission will hold further hearings at Ronald Reagan's presidential library in California, Lyndon Johnson's in Texas, and Mr. Ford's in Michigan.

For all its civility, the Carter Center event exposed some of the fault lines in the debate. On the question of federal aid, Mr. Michel said, "I don't know how there's that much money to make an impact," and he fretted that the promise of it, meanwhile, would "inhibit the states to move now" on their own. Other panelists clashed over whether the federal government should impose its own requirements attached to the money.

Among witnesses, Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R., Ark.), sponsor of a bill to provide $1.5 billion toward local election costs, hailed his state's recent move toward new optical-scan voting systems, in which ballots are read by tallying machines similar to those used to grade standardized tests. But Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who prefers electronic systems similar to the touch-screens on bank automated teller machines, said her office found large error rates in Georgia counties with optical-scan systems.

Such differences, in a nation where nearly 4,000 counties and thousands more towns are responsible for elections, suggest the hurdles facing Mr. Carter in pursuing his goal of a uniform national system for federal elections. He says he doesn't expect much change by next year's congressional elections, but perhaps by 2004 and the next presidential race.

"It's not only conservatives who don't want the voter lists to expand. I say almost every incumbent member of the Congress or state legislatures doesn't want to see the voter lists expanded," Mr. Carter said, suggesting he won't shrink this year from being the scold who prods the lawmakers. "Because they want to protect the particular constituency that put them in office and keeps them in office."

He recalled his own futile idea, as president two decades ago, to encourage the young to vote by authorizing high-school principals to be voting registrars. He says his own party, led by the late House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill (D., Mass.), stopped his idea cold.

"I found out I was running into a stone wall," he said. "They didn't want in the heart of Boston, [to] see 13,000 new Hispanics registered to vote, because they had no way to anticipate how those newly registered voters would choose their leader. And they might very well choose somebody else."

Write to Jackie Calmes at