Election Reform Act raises stakes

To prevent another election fiasco like the one last fall in Florida, federal lawmakers want to spend more than half a billion dollars on new voting machines and create a federal commission to improve voting practices.

The scent of money has high-tech companies rushing in to the election business. Federal, state and local spending in the next year or so is likely to mean billions of dollars in sales of election equipment.

With electronic voting machines and other election equipment as a backdrop, Sens. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced the Election Reform Act of 2001 Tuesday. The bill "begins an important public discussion about how we can modernize current vote counting methods," McConnell said.

The Election Reform Act would make $500 million available this year and $100 million each year thereafter in matching grants for localities to buy new voting equipment. The act would create a permanent four-member commission to study election administration.

Commission members would be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve four-year terms. Commissioners would study election procedures and technology and recommend ways state election officials can improve voter registration, the accuracy of voter rolls, access to polling places and vote counting.

States and localities that accept commission recommendations would be eligible for matching grants to buy new election equipment.

Contending that most Americans use better technology to get cash from automated teller machines than they use to elect the president, Torricelli said, "It is time to take action."

As attention and money focus on voting, companies such as Unisys Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Electronic Data Systems Corp. are leaping into the election arena.

Offerings range from fingerprint scanners and smart cards to identify voters, to portable, battery-powered electronic voting machines that can provide easier access for voters. One system uses electronic maps and voter addresses to assign voters to the proper precincts after redistricting.

But "fixing the technology alone will not fix the problems that became apparent in this election," warned Doug Lewis, director of Election Center, a Houston-based association of election officials.

Probably more important than buying new machines, state legislatures must "define what constitutes a vote," and decide exactly how recounts are to be performed, he said. Defining what is a vote would eliminate confusion over whether to count dimpled, pregnant or hanging chads. And clear procedures for recounts might keep elections from being decided in court.

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