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State Officials Scramble to Fix Election Systems

For the voters, the 2000 elections (search) are long over and done with. For the top state officials responsible for making the voting run smoothly, the work has never stopped.

Deadlines are looming to make sure the election changes demanded after President Bush's disputed 2000 victory are in place by the Jan. 1, 2006, date ordered by Congress. But many states are not going to make it, many of the nation's secretaries of state warned Monday.

"I'm somewhat floundering," Wyoming Secretary of State Joe Meyer admitted to a Justice Department lawyer overseeing state progress. "You might want to set up a form consent decree" to make it easier to take legal action against several states at once.

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

Among the tasks before them is ensuring that each precinct has a voting machine accessible to the disabled and launching a statewide, computerized voter registration database.

New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, head of the National Association of Secretaries of State, predicted it won't 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 federal election reforms are spilling beyond their boundaries, chipping away at state control and responsibility.

The association approved a 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 won't 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 may pursue civil actions against states they believe are violating the law.

While the disputed 2000 presidential election produced calls for reforms, Congress didn't 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 are designed to help eliminate the most common problems of valid voters being denied a chance to cast a ballot because of confusion or missing paperwork. They're also supposed to guard against voter fraud.

Federal election officials warned the secretaries against seeking a delay in Congress' deadline. Voters already are upset that the improvements weren't 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. He and other commissioners said they want to work co-operatively with state officials.

But some secretaries said the commission is already crossing the line. "They're going into rulemaking by another word, not guidance," Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said.

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," New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said, "is should our elections be run by the national government?"

Sen. 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, given the drawn-out battles that took place over the 2002 election bill.

Others criticized the secretaries' call to Congress, like Jim Dickson with the American Association of People with Disabilities. "To essentially take the position of `just give us the money and we'll be accountable to no one' only increases the public's cynicism," he said.