Congress OKs Money for Voting Systems

Determined to avoid a repeat of the disputed 2000 presidential election, Congress has found another $1 billion to help states prepare for what lawmakers hope will be a more orderly and fair vote next fall.

"I can't stress how critical this money is at this point in time," said Rep. Bob Ney (search), R-Ohio, one of the authors of the Help America Vote Act (search), which President Bush (search) signed into law a year ago.

It was intended to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat by replacing outdated voting equipment, upgrading voter registration lists, training poll workers, assuring that no qualified voter is turned away without the opportunity of casting a provisional ballot and making polling places more accessible to the disabled.

The measure committed $3.86 billion over three years to help states revamp voting systems. The goal was to replace punch card systems — made infamous in the chaotic Florida presidential count in 2000 — and lever systems in 2004, and have machines in place by 2006 that will allow voters to confirm the accuracy of their ballots.

But the soaring costs of the war on terrorism, the poor economy and the ballooning federal deficit have threatened to leave the states, once again, with orders from Washington but without enough money to carry them out.

Congress approved $1.5 billion for election reform in the 2003 budget year, $600 million below what was planned in the act. For 2004, the White House asked for $500 million, half of what states were expecting under the law.

Also, some $830 million that was supposed to go to the states as part of the 2003 money has been held up, pending Senate confirmation of the four nominees chosen to run a new Election Assistance Commission, which will act as a clearinghouse for information on good election management. A vote on the nominees has been delayed by unrelated partisan wrangling over other Bush nominees.

But it was bipartisanship that saved the day for the election reform money. In October, the two chief sponsors in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (search) of Kentucky, the No. 2 Senate Republican, and Christopher Dodd (search), D-Conn., succeeded in adding $1 billion for election reform to a 2004 spending bill.

In the House, Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Rep. Steny Hoyer (search) of Maryland, the No. 2 House Democrat, appealed directly to House Speaker Dennis Hastert (search), R-Ill., seeking his support for full funding.

For all four, the money being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan was a selling point. "In a time when we are committing billions of dollars in federal resources to build democracies around the world, we simply cannot afford to shortchange our own," Dodd said in a Senate speech.

"Money is tighter than a drum right now," Ney said. But Hastert, he said, "has talked with pretty great emotion that you have to have people believing in the voting system."

The $1 billion will be included in a massive $373 billion spending bill, which will complete Congress' work on the 2004 budget. The House is likely to pass the bill next week; one Senate Democrat, Robert Byrd (search) of West Virginia, has vowed to block immediate passage.

The $1 billion is crucial for states that embarked on ambitious projects in anticipation of the 2004 elections.

"We don't look at this as extra money. To us it is vital, it's what the states are planning on," said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State. She said many states are having difficulty signing contracts with equipment vendors because no one wants to make a commitment until they know the money will be there.

Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, president of the association, said her state, which doesn't have punch card ballots to replace, used $5.2 million in federal funds in the first year for voter education, poll worker training and voter registration systems. The money they hope to get in 2004 would cover replacing precinct election equipment.

Seven counties in Minnesota still use paper ballots and count by hand. "The $1 billion puts us closer to the realm of what is possible," she said. "It's a really big thing to us in the states."