your connection to The Boston Globe

States struggle with election reform

Officials air doubts as deadlines loom

WASHINGTON -- Flaw-proof election machines. Easy-to-read ballots. Registration systems that catch double-voters or dead voters still on the rolls.

For top state election officials meeting in Washington, the pressure is on to ensure that the election changes demanded after President Bush's disputed 2000 victory are in place by the Jan. 1 deadline imposed by Congress.

The goal is to have the changes ready for the November 2006 midterm elections, but many secretaries of state who gathered in Washington yesterday for four days of meetings say there are too many obstacles in their way. And they worry that the federal government is undermining their authority with an assistance commission that is starting to act like a regulatory agency.

''A lot of states are still trying to sort out how to get to the deadlines," said Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's secretary of state. ''That's a major, major challenge. We're probably a year behind schedule."

The three-term Democrat predicts that it will not be until the 2008 presidential election that all the improvements Congress demanded are up and running everywhere.

State and local officials administer elections, not the federal government. But the secretaries worry that federal election reforms are spilling beyond their boundaries, chipping away at state control and responsibility.

Their group, the National Association of Secretaries of State, approved a formal resolution that asks Congress to dissolve its oversight organization, the federal Election Assistance Commission, after the 2006 elections.

They also sought assurances from Justice Department officials that states that lag behind the Jan. 1 deadline will not be harshly punished, noting that among other things states still are waiting for federal standards for new voting machines.

But Hans von Spakovsky, a Justice official, told the meeting that after the deadline agency lawyers will pursue civil actions against any state they think is violating the law.

While the disputed 2000 presidential election produced calls for reforms, Congress did not pass its election law until 2002. Bush then took months to appoint members to a critical oversight commission that disburses money to the states. States have now received $2.2 billion.

The statewide, computerized voter registries the law demands can go a long way to eliminate the most common problems of valid voters being denied an opportunity to cast a ballot because of confusion or missing paperwork. The registries also are intended to guard against voter fraud. ''We're going to have real checks and balances that did not ever exist there in the past," Vigil-Giron said.

Federal election officials warned the secretaries against seeking a delay in Congress's deadline. Voters already are upset that the improvements were not in place for 2004, said Paul DeGregorio, a member of the federal commission.

''The average voter wonders why, when they see problems that occurred in this election or had to wait in line for several hours to vote, why haven't these been fixed?" DeGregorio said.

The secretaries said they are working hard to improve elections but that they question the commission's reach.

The election officials are even more concerned about proposals in Congress that would go beyond the 2002 law and put more federal control over elections.

''The overriding issue right now," said William Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state, ''is should our elections be run by the national government?"

Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and several other Senate Democrats sponsored a measure that would establish federal standards for voting systems, registrations, and early voting, among other facets of elections that states decide.

Some officials doubted such a measure could get through the Republican-controlled Congress anyway, after the drawn-out battles over the 2002 election bill.

But advocates for more improvements in elections system warned that the secretaries, by taking a stance against the election commission, were making stronger elections systems more elusive.

''The hodgepodge quilt of laws, interpretations, and regulations is a major national issue," said Miles Rapoport, a former Connecticut secretary of state and president of Demos, a group that advocates election reform. State and federal governments need to come together to have a ''good conversation" about elections, he said.

Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives