Election Reform Looks Like a Shoo-In

Each side gets something dear: The GOP gains antifraud provisions, and Democrats expect higher counts in minority districts

Election reform, long ago given up for dead, could well become the first major legislation approved by Congress in 2002. For most of 2001, it was caught up in partisan recriminations over dangling chads and bipartisan allegations of vote fraud. But the issue seems to have been resurrected by something all too rare in Washington: a compromise that makes both sides feel like they've won.

For Democrats, the cost of consensus was more than $2 billion in grants to states to buy modern election machinery and put in place safeguards that allow voters to cast provisional ballots if their names were inadvertently left off the rolls. Republicans signed on in part because the legislation includes significant antifraud provisions. It will require new voters to show photo identification before casting their first ballot and mandates statewide registration to lessen the chance of someone voting in more than one jurisdiction.


  "When similar measures were adopted in Virginia, 100,000 deceased people and 20,000 felons were removed from the rolls," observes Representative Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), co-sponsor of the bipartisan House bill. If, as GOP strategists believe, most votes that are cast in the names of felons and dead people are for Democrats, the change will benefit the Republicans. "I have great respect for the dearly departed and for dogs -- I just don't think they should vote," says Senate co-sponsor Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.).

The House overwhelmingly approved Ney's proposal in December, and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) promises that a similar measure will be near the top of the agenda when the Senate returns on Jan. 23. With few obstacles remaining, born-again election-reform convert George W. Bush is poised to sign it into law by spring.

Why the rapid turnaround? September 11 has put an end to the debate over whether the now immensely popular President was legitimately elected. Also, a news media examination of Florida ballots that concluded Bush likely would have carried the state without the Supreme Court's stepping in "took the pressure off the Republicans to keep this baby bottled up," says Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.


  There are longer-term calculations at work as well. By agreeing to a compromise bill, Republicans can deflect Democratic charges that they are against accurate vote-counting. And Democrats are likely to benefit from the additional votes that may be tallied in heavily minority precincts. "When this is fully implemented, we're going to add 3 million to 5 million voters," predicts Representative Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), co-sponsor of the House bill. The reason for Hoyer's optimism: The most inaccurate voting systems are concentrated in primarily minority precincts in inner cities and rural areas. In Cook County, Ill., for example, uncounted punch-card ballots exceeded 5%.

A cadre of Democratic liberals and pro-reform purists complain that the changes don't go far enough. They are demanding federal standards for voting machinery, a ban on punch-card ballots, and far more money to help recession-ravaged states pay for new equipment.

Nevertheless, the incremental approach seems to have satisfied all but the harshest partisans. The Republicans have a reasonable guarantee that the last election won't become a big issue in the next. And Democrats have a crack at picking up some previously uncounted votes. "One reason this works," says former Representative Mickey Edwards (R-Okla.), now a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, "is that nobody really loses." And in Washington, there's nothing quite so sweet as legislation that has something for almost everybody.

By Dan Carney in Washington, D.C.

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