WASHINGTON – President Bush signed legislation Tuesday that Congress approved overwhelmingly to correct the sort of voter registration mix-ups and confusing ballots that threw his own election into bitter dispute two years ago.
Critics branded the signing ceremony little more than "a White House photo-op."
The "Help America Vote Act of 2002" will give states $3.9 billion to replace — in time for the 2004 presidential election that will likely include Bush's bid for a second term — outdated punch-card and lever voting machines, and to improve voter education and poll-worker training.
The bill was signed too late for the vote next Tuesday that will determine control of Congress and 36 governorships.
The new law also requires statewide voter databases that are designed to make it easier to register and to detect fraud.
"Every registered voter deserves to have confidence that the system is fair and elections are honest, that every vote is recorded, and that the rules are consistently applied," Bush said on his two-day respite from the campaign trail.
"The legislation I sign today will add to the nation's confidence."
But both the Democrat and Republican parties have lawyers on standby to pounce on suspected irregularities in next Tuesday's vote. Already, voter intimidation allegations have surfaced in Arkansas, where there is a tight Senate race and investigators are reviewing hundreds of questionable voter registration cards in South Dakota. Justice Department civil-rights monitors have been to oversee polls in several Florida counties.
It was the 2000 Florida recount battle — with its confusing "butterfly ballots," half-perforated punch ballots and allegations of voter intimidation — that gave rise to the legislation. Bush's electoral victory over Democrat Al Gore was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court.
The president made no mention Tuesday of that Florida debacle. The state, governed by one of the president's younger brothers, Jeb, more recently botched its Sept. 10 primary. Despite new computerized voting machines, Florida took a week to sort out technical and organizational problems and determine that Bill McBride narrowly defeated former Attorney General Janet Reno for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, reminding reporters that Jeb Bush's re-election is the Democratic Party's "No. 1 target," was defensive about the state's spotty election record.
"Clearly there are many lessons to be learned from 2000, and the state of Florida reacted to them and has provided a tremendous amount of funding and resources to the various counties throughout Florida as a result of that," Fleischer said.
Critics accused the president of halfhearted interest.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Bush, who has publicly spoken the words "election reform" as few as four times in two years, was merely "posing for a White House photo-op" on Tuesday.
Rep. John Conyers Jr., dean of the Congressional Black Caucus that held national hearings on allegations that thousands of minority voters were harassed or intimidated while trying to vote in Florida two years ago, recalled that in the summer, Bush vetoed a $400 million "down payment" on overhauling the election system.
"Without funding, this bill is an empty shell and the president's signature is a cruel and empty promise," said Conyers, D-Mich., top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Bush's televised ceremony in an auditorium within the White House compound offered a timely political perk to at least one House Republican in a tight re-election race: Maryland Rep. Connie Morella, who voted for the bill but was not an active leader on it, was granted a spot on stage just over Bush's shoulder as he sat at an unadorned desk and inked his signature.
A spokesman for Morella later said the White House invited her because, as a member of the House Science Committee, she took part in negotiations on the final version.
By 2004, all new registering voters will be required to provide drivers' license numbers, Social Security numbers, or specially assigned voter ID numbers at the polls. That same year, states will have to give provisional ballots to voters whose names do not appear on voter rolls. Those provisional ballots would be counted once valid registration is verified.
For 2006 balloting, states will be required to maintain voter registration lists linked to driver's license databases. States also will be required to have voting machines that let voters confirm the way they marked their ballot — and, if necessary, change their votes — before they are finally cast.
"The bill goes a long way toward addressing a lot of the problems, but the extent to which the bill works relies on what the states do because they are given a lot of discretion," said Tova Andrea Wang, a staffer to the National Commission on Federal Election Reform.
"A new polling machine is fine and great as long as people know how to use it, and there's no specificity in the legislation on poll-worker training and voter education."
Wang and other election experts also worry that discriminatory enforcement of the voter-ID requirements could especially disenfranchise minorities, the poor, immigrants and students.