Outside editorial Seek common sense, not partisan advantage

Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 2001

The following editorial appeared Aug. 5 in the Dallas Morning News:

If former Presidents Carter and Ford can remove raw politics from the election reform debate, why then can't their parties do the same?

A high-level commission chaired by the two former presidents last week presented a well-reasoned set of recommendations for repairing the election process. The commission identified the system's many fractures and, unlike many blue-ribbon reports, laid out some solutions. As the commission noted in its report, "everyone who observed the 2000 election crisis was struck by the sheer unreadiness of every part of the system to deal with a close election."

But from the reaction one might have thought that the National Commission on Federal Election Reform had advocated eliminating national elections.

President Bush offered muted support of the commission's broad principles and little else, and within a day, the politics of election reform had begun to play out.

Veterans groups opposed the idea of a national voting holiday on Veterans Day. Some Republicans expressed suspicion that a proposal to restore voting rights to felons who have served their time or making Election Day a national holiday would aid Democratic candidates drawing on blue-collar or union votes. Similarly, Democrats expressed fears that unless the federal government takes a massive role in reform, the states will never discard the voting procedures that disenfranchise minority voters.

What emerged in the commission report, but is sorely lacking in the congressional reform debate, is cooperation and practicality. For example, punch cards were the cause of widespread voter irregularities last year. Yet the commission didn't outright condemn their use. Instead, it advocated a federal role in creating voluntary election standards for the states and stressed the importance of state and local governments retaining the primary responsibility to develop uniform statewide standards and specific guidelines.

Unfortunately, the congressional debate is moving in the wrong direction at the behest of Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who is pressing a Democratic measure that potentially would impose unattainable federal election standards on the states. That bill moved out of the Senate Rules Committee on Thursday over the protest of Republicans who boycotted the meeting. ...A bipartisan bill written by Sens. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., that more closely sides with the commission's position remains stuck in committee.

If reform is going to work, it can't be imposed from Washington. There are vast differences in the costs of holding an election in rural and urban communities. State and local officials are better positioned than the federal government to appreciate the unique challenges and to implement election changes.

While the commission report in many ways echoed the findings of other election reviews, the report offers a number of important recommendations. For example:

PROVISIONAL VOTING: A voter whose name does not appear properly on lists would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot that would be counted later if the person were verified to have been an eligible voter.

VOTING HOLIDAY: A dedicated voting holiday might increase voter turnout and the availability of poll workers. ... While businesses might consider it an additional expense, the idea is worth considering.

UNIFORM VOTING HOURS: In national elections, voting hours should be uniform, and arguably lengthened perhaps to 24 hours, to accommodate work hours and poll accessibility. ... In a related matter, the commission properly chided news organizations for projecting election results before all polling places were closed and strongly urged media outlets to voluntarily refrain from making early projections that might discourage those who haven't voted.

Of course more is needed, including federal financial matching assistance to help the states make improvements. ... Yet lawmakers seem to be treating election reform as a political and ideological spoils game rather than as a civic obligation to repair a fracture in the democracy. That unfortunately doesn't bode well for improvements when voters go to the polls in 2002 or 2004.

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