Senate passes election overhaul bill; House and Senate negotiators to hash out differences

Friday, April 12th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Now that the Senate and the House have passed bills to help states improve voting procedures, negotiators working on the final legislation will deal extensively with how deeply the federal government should be involved in the electoral process.

Anti-fraud provisions and proposals to eliminate the use of punch card voting machines also must be hashed out.

``We aren't at the finish line yet,'' Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., a sponsor of the bill, said after Thursday's vote.

The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a bill on a 99-1 vote Thursday that would give states $3.5 billion in grants to upgrade equipment and procedures in exchange for meeting increased federal standards. In a concession to Republicans, voters who registered by mail would have to show identification the first time they vote.

Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., the only lawmaker who voted against the bill, complained that it was ``a one-size-fits-all solution that failed to serve a rural state like Montana.''

The House bill, passed in December, would spend $2.6 billion for states to improve their elections. It would leave the states leeway to put in force their own improvements. Under the Senate version, Washington would have substantial say before changes were in place.

Both bills would spend the money over a five-year period.

Lawmakers remained optimistic Thursday that a compromise could be found.

``Improving our country's election system should not be a partisan issue,'' said Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, a sponsor of the House bill. ``Republicans and Democrats nationwide, and here in this Congress, agree on the necessity of ensuring that all citizens who wish to vote can, and that their votes are counted accurately.''

Still, negotiations could be bruising. House Republicans were adamantly opposed to any setting of requirements or standards for states. Democrats have been lukewarm over the GOP's identification requirements.

Both bills are intended to prevent a recurrence of balloting problems in Florida that marred the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which delayed a decision in the presidential race until Dec. 12, 36 days after Election Day.

The Senate's identification requirements stem from fraud allegations that cropped up in places such as Missouri, where a dead alderman and a dog were registered to vote.

Under the Senate bill, first-time voters who were registered by mail can prove their identities with photo IDs, utility bills or similar documents. Voters in Oregon and Washington state, which have mail-in voting, could write their driver's license numbers or the last four digits of their Social Security numbers on forms when they initially register to vote. No further documentation would be needed for mail-in voting.

Both the House and Senate bills establish practices such as statewide registration lists and provisional voting to improve election systems. Under provisional voting, people could vote even if their names failed to appear on election rolls if they said they were eligible. Election officials later would determine the ballots' validity.

The White House already has signaled its support for an election overhaul bill. President Bush included a $400 million down payment in his budget proposal for next year to go toward an eventual $1.2 billion fund for state and local governments to use.