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Florida renews focus on election reform

Legislation pending in Congress

Bill McBride was declared the winner of Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Bill McBride was declared the winner of Florida's Democratic gubernatorial primary.  

From Kate Snow
CNN Washington

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- With another election fiasco in Florida this week, will Congress finally agree to a bill sending money to the states to improve their election systems? Maybe.

With the clock ticking down before Congress is expected to break for the November elections, it's unclear if lawmakers will be able to work out a compromise on an "election reform" bill.

Election reform became an issue following the 2000 presidential election, when Democrat Al Gore said thousands of ballots in Florida had not been properly counted -- or were ignored completed -- and sought a recount in some counties. His recount effort was eventually stopped by the Supreme Court.

The House passed one version of a reform bill late last year. The Senate passed its own version, by an overwhelming vote of 99 to 1, in April of this year.

But efforts to work out differences between the bills and pass one measure have stalled. The Democratic gubernatorial primary problems in Florida -- including glitches with electronic voting machines that caused delays -- have refocused attention on voting problems.

On Friday, negotiations continued between key lawmakers. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Connecticut; Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio huddled throughout the morning.

Said one Senate aide, "At least everyone is at the table." But he added, "We're not all holding hands and singing kumbaya."

Senator Kit Bond, R-Missouri, was unable to attend the meeting, but told CNN that he was "still hopeful" that lawmakers could find a compromise.

"I don't think anybody wants to start over," Bond said. "We've worked too long and too hard," he added.

Negotiators have agreed on the amount of money the federal government would send to the states to help states buy new equipment and implement new procedures. The bill would send $3.5 billion over five years, aides said.

But they're stuck over how to stop voter fraud without also stopping legitimate, legal voters from casting a ballot. Republicans are backing identification requirements for voters that Democrats say would leave too many Americans out in the cold.

One Democratic aide cited the hypothetical example of a college student living in New York City without roommates. That student might not have a driver's license or even a utility bill in her name, and, thus, might face difficult at a polling station.

Democrats are particularly worried about turning away inner-city, minority voters who tend to vote for Democrats.

Bond said Democrats were trying to "gut" the fraud provision.

"It needs to be easier to vote and tougher to cheat," Bond said. He said an effort "to gut the anti-fraud measures totally" will stop the bill from becoming law.

Other issues bogging down a deal include: whether states should be required to meet certain new voting standards or maintain them as goals; how to protect the voting rights of Americans with disabilities, and who would enforce new voting regulations -- the Department of Justice or a newly formed commission.

One Democratic aide said Congress would end up with a black eye if it is unable to pass election reform legislation.

"There'll be enough blame to go around," the aide said. "The stakes are very high for both parties, and in a way it's remarkable that we're negotiating this now given that we're just weeks away from November elections."

The White House has not lobbied aggressively for the bill. While the administration is supportive, Bond said, senior officials have a lot more pressing issues on their minds, like Iraq.

Bond also suggested that having new legislation might not help a situation like the one in Florida.

"Florida proves again that no matter how much money you provide, if you don't have competent people on the have a mess."

But the Democratic aide said federal money to help train poll workers in Florida might have made a difference.




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