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Jewish World Review April 13, 2001 / 20 Nissan, 5761

Dan K. Thomasson

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Consumer Reports

Is election reform finally dead? -- ABOUT the only thing conclusive to emerge from the privately financed recount of Florida's presidential election ballots is a reaffirmation of the need to modernize the mechanics of voting at whatever cost. But to paraphrase a famous comment on the weather, everyone complains about the election process but no one really seems able to do anything about it.

As a matter of fact, now that the voting crisis is five months behind us, neither Congress nor the Bush administration shows any desire to tackle the issue that everyone agreed was so pressing at the time, particularly the aspect of how ballots are cast. This is the case despite polls showing that an overwhelming number of Americans favor a uniform approach to voting throughout the nation and believe that federal taxes should be used to accomplish that.

At one point, President Bush seemed inclined to name a blue ribbon commission to study the issue of reform and make recommendations. It didn't happen and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, after discussions with the White House, came up with the idea of naming a select committee to deal with a potential overhaul. He reasoned that the issue was so broad that it would overwhelm the regular committees of Judiciary and Administration.

Not only would the committee investigate establishing a simplified method of voting that would cut down on the confusion, but it also could wrestle with other sticky questions such as uniform poll closings and restrictions on exit polls.

There was only one rub. Hastert and Democratic leader Richard Gephardt somewhat conveniently couldn't agree on how to divide the membership. Hastert wanted a five to four Republican edge and Gephardt demanded that the membership be split equally among Democrats and Republicans. The negotiations have gone on for weeks with apparently the last deadline to accomplish this having passed.

The truth is that the urgency for reform also has passed and those most supportive of it have suddenly realized what an expensive task it really is, monetarily and politically. Every election under the current system is basically local, even those involving federal candidates, and controlled by state authority, as was quite clear in Florida. The poorer the county and its voting precincts the less money is available for modern equipment.

The cost of providing every precinct with expensive electronic equipment that is used every two years or so would be astronomical, opponents contend. This is despite the fact that a recent voter survey by the Information Technology Association of America and Unisys Corporation found that 6l percent of those polled favored federal assumption of the debt and 69 percent believe that modernizing the system would produce a more accurate result.

The ITAA and Unisys surveys, whose interest in modernization is obvious, found that overall only 39 percent of Americans support voting on the Internet. Not surprising, when the question is put to those voters 18 to 24 in age, the support for Internet voting climbs to 60 percent.

The survey also found that 90 percent of Americans favor uniform voting technology throughout an individual state. The poll further found that 47 percent of Americans said they would be more likely to vote knowing the system at their precinct had been modernized to make it easier to understand how to cast their ballots, suggesting that voter turnout might be increased.

"Clearly, the American public wants to see their states and communities modernize voting technologies," ITAA President Harris Miller said. "Our public opinion poll suggests that new technology would enhance voter confidence, a hinge pin of our democratic process...and help boost the public's confidence that our systems are safe, secure and provide accurate results."

While few would disagree, the issue of who controls our elections and the way they are conducted is considerably broader than that and certainly far more politically complex. Included are serious constitutional questions involving First Amendment rights of free speech and a free press. Restricting exit polling would be at the top of that list. There clearly are state's rights involved and the matter of closing hours.

Overall election reform probably makes the campaign finance reform look like child's play and it has taken years to even come close to revising those rules. So while Florida is likely to alter its voting methodology, the butterfly ballot or something akin to it can be expected to break out of its cocoon somewhere else and the specter of another 2000 debacle will be around every corner.

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