House Committee Approves Election Reform

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The House Administration Committee unanimously passed an election overhaul plan that gives states $2.6 billion to buy new voting equipment, better train poll workers and improve registration lists.

"This bill will, for the first time, give the states and local government ... real dollars that will enable the states to make needed improvements to their voting systems," said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Civil rights groups immediately blasted the bill, saying it will do nothing to solve the problems that plagued last year's presidential election, but Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., a co-author of the legislation said it's a step in the right direction.

"This legislation is not perfect," Hoyer said. "However, it is a bipartisan, effective bill that will address the glaring flaws in our election system."

Of the $2.6 billion, $400 million -- $6,000 per precinct -- will go immediately to states to replace punch card voting systems. Punch card ballots were blamed for many of the problems in the presidential election in Florida in 2000.

About 36 percent of U.S. voters used a punch card machine last year, federal regulators say.

The lawmakers said they have a commitment from Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to act on the bill soon.

But Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., contends the proposal was developed in secret and without consultation from civil rights advocates. "It is astonishing," says Conyers, who favors uniform standards for voting machines.

Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities complained that the bill allows states to define what is "accessible" and does nothing to address equal access for the handicapped.

"The nation's disability community will oppose any legislation that will allow the states to set different standards for voting access," Dickson said.

The House legislation only requires states to have new voting systems to provide "practical and effective" means for disabled voters to cast secret ballots.

The Senate continues to work on its bill.

Ron Thornburgh, Kansas' secretary of state and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, said he would recommend that his group endorse the legislation.

"It preserves the states as the administrator of elections," Thornburgh said.

The House measure would spend $650 million for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1., and $2 billion more over the next two years.

In addition to the money to replace punch card voting systems, states would get $250 million immediately to begin improving equipment and voter lists, and recruiting and training poll workers.

The measure establishes minimum standards for states, including allowing provisional voting. That means people who do not appear on election rolls but say they are eligible to vote could vote. Election officials later would determine whether the ballots were valid.

This idea was promoted strongly by Democrats after some Florida voters, many of them black, were turned away from the polls in error.

The standards also call for a statewide voter registration system.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.