Is Voting Reform Down for the Count?


By Richard S. Dunham After the Presidential voting fiasco in Florida last year, it seemed that electoral reform was a slam-dunk agenda item in Washington. Lawmakers lined up to offer simple, bipartisan plans to avoid similar disasters at the polls in the future. George W. Bush and Al Gore quickly agreed on the need to take action to remedy the wrongs of 2000.

Well, 100 days into Bush's term, electoral reform is nowhere on the White House agenda. Not short-term. Not long-term. What's going on here?

It seems strategists at the White House have decided that there's little to be gained by refocusing public attention on the Florida election controversy. And they believe it would be an unwise use of precious federal funds to divert budget resources from top priorities to give states and localities a pot of cash to buy new voting machines and to protect minorities from harassment near polling places.

"IT'S A CHARADE." That could be a big mistake. Campaign reform is a political no-brainer. For a very small outlay of federal funds, the Republican President could buy goodwill from many voters who are still steaming about perceived electoral irregularities in Florida and elsewhere. The feds could help local governments banish chads forever and replace antiquated punch-card systems with state-of-the-art computerized equipment or scanner-paper systems. By ignoring the bipartisan proposals of Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Bob Torricelli (D-N.J.), and others, the White House is missing an opportunity to build the Bush political coalition.

Democrats see this as an opportunity to pummel the President's indifference. "They don't want [electoral reform]," cries Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe. "It's a charade." Sensing an opening, the DNC is planning a nationwide series of hearings on GOP voter intimidation and other alleged sins. As for inaction on Capitol Hill, McAuliffe charges: "They moved with lightning speed to get pardon hearings before Congress [on former-President Clinton's last-minute reprieves]. You can't even get them to talk about electoral reform."

McAuliffe is being a bit hyperbolic, but his charges contain more than a kernel of truth. GOP Hill barons have little reason to delay action on the issue. Likewise, there's good reason for the Bush budget to include some money for campaign reform.

DANGEROUS INDIFFERENCE. Over at the White House, however, there's no sense of defensiveness. Spokesman Ari Fleischer says Bush, too, wants certain electoral reforms -- to prevent felons from voting and to make sure that ballots cast by military personnel are counted. "Not all reforms require money," says Fleischer.

True enough. And Congress can do some other things that cost zippo, such as establishing national standards for recounts. But some of the problems highlighted in Florida will cost millions to fix. You can argue over whether the federal government or localities should pick up the tab for new voting equipment. Yet few are opposed to stepped-up law enforcement when it comes to intimidation of minority voters or unfair handling of military voters.

Talk is cheap. And indifference is dangerous, especially to the prospect of a second term for a President who won the election but came in second in the popular vote. Truth is, Bush has little to lose and much to gain from promoting voting reforms. By ignoring a problem important to many voters, Bush and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill could be making a costly mistake. Dunham is a White House correspondent for BusinessWeek's Washington bureau. Follow his views every Monday in Washington Watch, only on BW Online


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