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Senators hear election system called antiquated

Sens. Hollings and McCain
"Large segments of the population were systematically shut out of the electoral process," says committee Chairman John McCain, right. Next to him is Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Members of the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday heard the American election system described as so dilapidated and antiquated that it intentionally or otherwise locked millions of people out of the voting process in last year's general election.

The Senate panel -- formally the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee -- thus began what probably will be a long process toward revamping the way Americans vote for national office.

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Since the resolution of the 2000 presidential election -- 36 days after the process should have ended -- a variety of groups have called for the improvement and modernization of election equipment, for a system of voter registration that assures no eligible voters are dropped from the rolls, and for proper training of precinct-level election officials.

President Bush, who faced off against then-Vice President Al Gore for the White House, won the national electoral vote after a series of conflicts in Florida state and federal courts was brought to a halt by the U.S. Supreme Court in December, though Gore won the national popular vote by more than 500,000.

Witnesses who testified before the Commerce Committee on Wednesday referred often to the Florida situation but attempted to put it into a larger perspective, saying that had the conflicts there not occurred, hundreds and perhaps thousands of irregularities in other parts of the country would not have come to light.

Committee Chairman John McCain, the Arizona Republican who mounted a spirited campaign against Bush in last year's early primary season -- and who is the Senate's champion of campaign finance reform -- said "large segments of the population were systematically shut out of the electoral process" in the last election.

If the problems experienced in 2000 are not corrected, McCain warned, rates or voter turnout may continue to drop, and younger voters will not have any confidence in system that they are already highly suspicious of.

"Our primary goal should be to restore voter confidence," McCain said.

To this committee member Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, added: "If there is even an inadvertent flaw in the design or administration of our voting systems that prevents Americans from having their votes counted, it is our utmost responsibility to ensure that we remedy the situation."

Legislation on tap

Witnesses included a cross section of lawmakers, mostly Democrats, who described the inadequacies of the technology used to gather and tabulate votes and a variety of bills they are devising to address some of the irregularities seen last year.

All agreed that the "affliction" of punch card machines -- as articulated by Sen. Max Cleland, D-Georgia -- should be eliminated.

Antiquated machines such as the punch card "Votomatic" were found in predominantly minority voting districts in many states and optical scanners and other more modern technologies were dispersed within areas that are more affluent.

Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said he is drafting a bill with the aid of Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, that would solidify elections rules he said are too riddled with holes.

panel
Sen. Christopher Dodd, center, tells the committee: "We need to do something about antiquated voting machines, ballots that confuse rather than clarify, and overcrowded polling places."  

As did other witnesses, Conyers avoided placing the blame on Florida.

"This has been an ongoing problem," he said. "Voter reform has sadly been neglected by many of us ... but this is a nationwide problem. We need to get reform as quickly as we can, and we need to get as many elements as quickly as we can."

Conyers said his legislation would implement a system of checks and balances to benefit the individual voter, including an allowance for a voter to check his vote before casting his ballot, protections against so-called over- and under-votes; the creation records of votes cast by precinct that can be audited, the improvement of the accessibility of polling places to disabled voters, and the design of ballots that are understandable to voters and elections workers alike.

"We need to do something about antiquated voting machines, ballots that confuse rather than clarify, and overcrowded polling places," Dodd said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said he was working on a bill that creates a blue-ribbon commission that will assess the effects of the last election and offer recommendations.

The commission, he said, would "recommend that polls be accessible to everyone, and how we can guarantee the lists at polling sites include all registered voters so no one is mistakenly turned away."

'Remember Florida'

House Democrat Carrie Meek of Florida, who is African-American, brought the committee back to her home state when she said that what happened to blacks in her state on November 7 was nothing short of "outrageous." She said she did not want to see legislation; she wanted action.

"I have a pin on today that says, 'Remember Florida,'" Meek said. "Members of my race died because of this issue. They died because they deserved the right to vote, and there we many who tried to stop them."

Florida was rife with reports following Election Day that the names of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of eligible African-Americans were purged from the voting rolls in some areas and that many voters were turned away from their polling places.

"African-American voting rights were diluted in this election, whether by design or whatever," Meek said, providing detailed data on the number of blacks turned away from their precincts, and on the number of ballots cast by African-Americans that were disqualified.

"Is this entering the race card into this discussion?" Meek asked. "Yes it is. Because the facts don't lie.

"More black voters than white voters had their ballots discarded, no matter what kind of voting system was used. Punch card ballots cheat voters, and they are much more likely to cheat African-American voters."



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