Bush endorses principles of election law report
President steers clear of specifics
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush heartily endorsed the key principles of a report on election law change Tuesday, but left details to Congress.
In a Rose Garden ceremony Tuesday, Bush formally received the report from the National Commission on Federal Election Reform. The commission was co-chaired by former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford.
"The commissioners offered many recommendations to strengthen our electoral system," Bush said. "Those recommendations are grounded in four fundamental principles which I heartily endorse and recommend to the Congress."
Those principles, he said, are: -- The federal government must continue respect the role of state, county and local governments in elections.
-- The federal government should have a limited but responsible role in assisting state and localities to solve problems with election administration.
-- Officials should actively and vigorously enforce the laws that protect the voting rights for ethnic and racial minorities, citizens who do not speak English fluently, the elderly and people with disabilities.
-- Government must uphold the voting rights of members of the armed services and Americans living abroad and safeguard absentee ballots against abuse.
But Bush has no plans to make electoral reform a signature issue on par with education reform or tax cuts, a White House official said.
"The president is supportive of the general direction of it, but we're going to see how it's received in Congress," a senior administration official told CNN. "We're willing to lend a hand, but we want to see Congress take the lead."
The adviser said the White House position reflects a deep-seated fear that if President Bush pushed hard for election reform, he would poison the issue due to the bad blood left over from his Supreme Court-ratified election victory over Vice President Al Gore, who won the popular vote in the 2000 presidential election.
The official, who is heavily involved in White House legislative and political strategy, said Bush hopes the House takes up the commission's report and produces an election reform bill this fall.
The report also contained some controversial recommendations: It asks all broadcast and cable networks to refrain from projecting the outcome of presidential voting in any state while polls remain open anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. It calls on on all television networks to provide five minutes a day for qualified presidential candidates to present their views in the last 30 days of the campaign, free of charge and in any format.
It recommends an increase in federal support for state and local governments to purchase new vote-counting equipment. Bush has said he would oppose new federal laws that would interfere with state and local governments' traditional role in coordinating and overseeing federal elections.
"This would be hopefully a voluntary commitment by the (media)," Carter said. "If they don't do it, then we recommend that Congress take action."
In the wake of last year's presidential election, some media organizations, such as CNN, adopted a policy of not projecting the outcome in any single state until the polls had closed in that state.
One senior official told CNN that Bush is "very concerned about what happened in Florida" on election night, when early network projections that Gore had won the state made it appear Gore was headed toward victory.
"That call affected Republican turnout in many key states that turned out to be very close, like Wisconsin, Iowa, New Mexico and Oregon," the senior official said. After calling Florida for Gore, the networks reversed themselves, placed the state in the toss-up column and later awarded it and the presidency -- ever so briefly -- to Bush. The actual vote results were not finalized until December.
The commission was created to study allegations of disenfranchisement and voting irregularities across the country, but specifically in Florida. The closeness of that state's presidential election prompted a massive legal battle that went unresolved until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in, effectively deciding the state's result -- and the fate of its crucial 25 electoral votes -- in Bush's favor.
In some Florida communities, minority voters complained that malfunctioning equipment kept them from voting in the presidential election. Other voters said ballots were confusing, leading them to vote by mistake for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. Still others, members of the military, encountered difficulties having their absentee votes counted.
The report also recommended:
-- A national holiday for election day
-- Allowing felons to vote after they complete their sentence or their parole (some states disenfranchise felons for life)
-- A bi-partisan election administration commission, made up of no more than five people.
-- Free network time for instructing voters on how to cast their ballots
CNN White House correspondents John King and Major Garrett contributed to this report
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