House passes election bill
Debate marks year anniversary of Supreme Court decision
By Manuel Perez-Rivas
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- On the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that effectively settled the 2000 presidential election, the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed legislation that would implement minimum federal election standards and provide funding to help states modernize their voting systems.
The bipartisan legislation would provide $2.65 billion in funding, including $400 million to replace punch card voting systems like the ones used in much of Florida last year. Several of those systems were the source of intense controversy, because of confusion and disagreement over what constituted a vote on the punch cards.
The bill passed by a vote of 362 to 63. It now heads to the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans have been negotiating an election reform measure of their own. Differences between House and Senate versions of the legislation would have to be resolved before a bill can be sent to President Bush for his signature.
White House Spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that Bush supports the legislation and considers it "a positive step forward."
House Administration Committee Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and ranking member Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, crafted the measure after previous efforts at reform legislation faltered.
"From the outset of this process, my goal was to craft legislation that could be supported by members from both sides of the aisle. That is critical in this process," Ney said Wednesday on the House floor, noting that the measure had 173 co-sponsors.
Hoyer argued for a quick approval so that reforms might be in place in time for next year's congressional elections. "This bill brings some very significant reforms. It answers many of the questions that were raised by last year's extraordinarily difficult election," Hoyer said.
"I'm hopeful that we can do this as quickly as possible so that 2002 -- and certainly 2004 -- will not be a repeat of 2000," he continued. "That election in 2000 ended 37 days after it began. It ended on this day exactly one year ago. It is appropriate that we act today."
The legislation calls for statewide voter registration systems and for provisional voting, which would allow people to vote if they claim eligibility, even if their names are not on election rolls. Officials would later determine their eligibility. It also provides funding for training poll workers and establishes a new Election Assistance Commission, which would devise a set of minimum standards.
States also would define what constitutes a vote -- an effort to avoid the kind of legal chaos that plagued Florida last year when no one could agree on whether dimpled chads or hanging chads should be counted. States that accept funding must match every $3 from the federal government with $1 in state funds, and show they have established statewide system performance benchmarks and adopted the commission's standards, or developed their own.
Ney said the bill attempts to strike a balance between those concerned about imposing a federal mandate on states and those who believe the standards should be mandatory. The language is an effort to set up "minimum standards," without imposing a mandate.
"The fund is designed to allow a state to determine its greatest needs, and to devote the resources to those needs," Ney said.
Yet many Democrats complained that the measure amounted to only a step in the right direction, and did not go far enough in assuring fair elections.
In addition to concerns over the minimum standards provisions, some legislators complained the measure does not do enough to strengthen civil rights protections or to guarantee access to the polls for the disabled.
More to be done, some argue
Rep. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, was among the critics who said the bill was a positive move, but that more needs to be done to ensure comprehensive election reform.
"The bill before us takes us a good step in that direction, but I believe it should go further," he said.
Yet supporters argued that compromise was called for on such a contentious piece of legislation, and that the bill approved by the House was the means of ensuring some reforms, at least, could become law before the next federal elections.
"This is bipartisan legislation that has the best chance of passing Congress this year and becoming law before next November's elections," said Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-New York. "Time is of the essence."
Some Republicans, including Reynolds, acknowledged the bill has shortcomings. "This is not a perfect bill, but it deserves to move forward," he said.
Many in the Senate share those concerns. Negotiations among four prominent senators are bogged down in disagreements over the details that should be included in any election reform.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-South Dakota, pledged to take up election reform legislation as soon Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut, the chairman of the committee dealing with the issue, could work out an agreement. That is not likely to happen before the holiday recess.
Should the Senate put off the issue until next spring, new standards and equipment might not be in place in time for the 2002 election -- regardless of today's House vote.
The House bill received the endorsement of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, whose National Commission on Federal Election Reform put out a report last summer outlining needed reforms.
"Our commission's most important recommendations are fully adopted in this bill," the four chairmen wrote in the Washington Post two weeks ago.
-- CNN Congressional Correspondent Kate Snow contributed to this report.
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