WASHINGTON — If necessity is the mother of invention, calamity is not uncommonly the source of legislation. The inspiration for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was the bloodshed at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when the Selma-to-Montgomery marchers were beaten for protesting blacks’ exclusion from the registration rolls.
Now, it appears possible that the fiasco of the 2000 presidential election, which, as you will recall, was challenged and disputed and litigated for 36 days after the ballots were cast, may produce the most significant piece of federal election law since that Voting Rights Act.
It is far from a certainty. But the emergence last week of a broadly supported, bipartisan House bill to remedy the procedural ills revealed by the Florida recount (and found in many other states) gives reason to hope that lawmakers will respond with a genuine remedy.
That is a surprise. For months, the bitter aftertaste of the close election, settled by a 5-4 Supreme Court decision halting further Florida recounts, blocked anything from happening in the House. Partisanship still prevails on the issue in the Senate.
The people who are chiefly responsible for rescuing this cause from the quagmire in the House are two men little known outside their own districts, Reps. Bob Ney of Ohio and Steny Hoyer of Maryland, respectively the Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat on the House committee with principal jurisdiction over election matters.
They had significant help from Rep. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, who was influential in keeping House Speaker Dennis Hastert from shutting down the bipartisan effort. And former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, co-chairmen of an election reform commission staffed by the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, applied gentle pressure last summer to nudge President Bush off his posture of studied indifference and produce at least modest White House encouragement for the negotiations to continue.
That Ney and Hoyer were able to work in bipartisan harness on an issue framed by a bitter election dispute and in an atmosphere of rampant distrust between Democrats and Republicans is truly remarkable. As both Philip Zelikow of the Miller Center and Doug Lewis of the Houston-based Election Center remarked to me, it is almost a throwback to the days when legislators of both parties recognized that even modest progress in problem-solving is better than stalemate.
In an interview, Ney and Hoyer described the obstacles they had to overcome among their fellow partisans. Some Republicans, Ney said, argued that election administration is a state and local responsibility and saw no need for federal laws to correct the registration, balloting and vote-counting problems that disenfranchised so many people last year. Some complained about the cost; some, about an expanded federal bureaucracy. But Ney told them the public expected the problem to be solved.
Hoyer faced demands from fellow Democrats, particularly minority members, who said the wrongs in Florida were as egregious as the voting rights violations of the Old Confederacy. They want federal legislation that would override state election laws and end what they see as discriminatory actions by local officials. That’s what the Democratic bill in the Senate would do.
The problem with that approach, said Ney and Hoyer, both alumni of state legislatures, and Blunt, a former Missouri secretary of state, is that state and local officials of both parties would surely generate enough resistance to kill any such bill.
Their proposal attempts to thread the needle. It authorizes $400 million to buy up the kind of punch-card voting machines that caused so many problems in Florida and another $2.25 billion over the next three years to assist states in obtaining new equipment and improving their election systems.
It also sets minimum performance standards — enforced by the Justice Department — that would require all states to create statewide voter registration lists, to set specific standards for what constitutes a vote, to allow provisional voting if there is a question about someone’s eligibility and, importantly, to allow voters to correct inadvertent errors before they leave the polling place.
There are also small grants to encourage college and high school students to be trained to work at the polls, filling a critical shortage of election personnel and building a sense of participation among young people, who are perhaps the most cynical about the political system.
The bill does not go far enough to satisfy some civil rights groups and some advocates for the disabled. Hoyer and Ney acknowledge it is a compromise. But it can — and should — pass. If it does, it will help remove a blot on our democracy and show that even now, serious legislators can still work across party lines.
David Broder can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.