Senators raise stakes on election reform

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.

With electronic voting machines and other equipment as a backdrop, Sens. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) introduced the Election Reform Act of 2001 on Jan. 30. The bill "begins an important public discussion about how we can modernize current vote-counting methods," McConnell said.

The act would make $500 million available this year and $100 million each year thereafter in matching grants for localities to buy new voting equipment, and 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. They would study election procedures and technology and recommend ways for state officials to improve voter registration, the accuracy of voter rolls, access to polling places and vote counting.

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." 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 could mean billions of dollars in sales of election equipment.

Offerings range from fingerprint scanners and smart cards to portable, battery-powered electronic voting machines that can provide easier access. One system uses electronic maps and 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.

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