A response to Florida

Posted: Friday, August 03, 2001

The following editorial appeared in Thursday's Washington Post:

Months after the Florida recount, an expert consensus on how to fix the electoral system is gradually emerging. On Tuesday, a commission headed by ex-presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford presented a blueprint for reform at a Rose Garden ceremony, and today a nonpartisan group called the Constitution Project is releasing similar recommendations. In Congress, however, consensus remains elusive. The Senate is due to mark up a bill today that is unlikely to command enough support to become law. If the debate hardens along party lines, the hopes for practical reform may end up being stifled.

This week's reports differ on some points. One recommends making elections a national holiday, while the authors of the other one worry that people would enjoy a holiday so much that they might neglect their civic duties. But the agreements between the two reports are more striking. Both say that the federal government needs to spend about $500 million a year to promote better voting machinery and organization. Both agree that better registration lists are the best way to avoid the Florida problem of voters who thought they had registered being turned away from polling stations. Both agree that voters whose names do not appear properly on lists should be allowed to cast provisional ballots that would later be counted if their right to vote is verified.

Moreover both agree that, if it is going to work, reform must not be imposed by the federal government. At present, elections are organized by state and local officials, and the system can only be improved with their cooperation. Members of Congress, whose re-election often depends on the support of activists back home, are not about to vote for federal mandates that alienate local leaders. Both commissions therefore propose that the federal government stop short of ordering states to embrace reform, preferring that it offer money to states in return for voluntary cooperation.

This last point is the one that threatens to split Congress. Many Democrats, notably members of the black caucus, insist that a mandate-free law would be too weak. The Senate bill that is due to be marked up today in the Rules Committee under the stewardship of Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., will likely include mandates, and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., is sponsoring companion legislation in the House. Dodd and Conyers should avoid turning the question of mandates into a theological issue. The object is to reduce to chance of future Floridas, and federal incentives to states may get the job done just as well as top-down orders that have slim prospects of enactment.

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