Election surprise: We might get a real reform

  • David Broder / Washington Post columnist
  • Saturday, November 17, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

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.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

toon
Editorial cartoons for Sunday, Feb. 25

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this Aug. 21, 2015 file photo, a tanker airplane drops fire retardant on a wildfire burning near Twisp, Wash. Three firefighters were killed battling the blaze. The story was a top Washington state news item in 2015. Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has proposed a plan to strengthen the ways that Washington can prevent and respond to wildfires. Franz released the 10-year plan last week as part of her $55 million budget request to the Legislature to improve the state's firefighting abilities (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Editorial: Wildfire threat calls for restoring full funding

Lawmakers should restore funding for fighting wildfires and call on one furry firefighter in particular.

Comment: Charity scandal shows Providence ignoring its mission

Ordered to forgive $157 million it charged the poor, the hospital system needs better oversight of officials.

Flowers and a photo of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are placed near the Russian consulate in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. Navalny, who crusaded against official corruption and staged massive anti-Kremlin protests as President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, died Friday in the Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 19-year sentence, Russia's prison agency said. He was 47. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)
Comment: Navalny’s death only deepens resolve of Putin’s foes

Even in losing elections, Navalny and others have shown that opposition to Putin is effective.

Women’s health care supporters have chance to flip Congress seat

When Roe v. Wade was overturned it simply opened the floodgates to… Continue reading

Comment: Wildfire problem is matter of fuel load, not climate

By limiting the harvest of timber in the state we allowed the forests’ fuel load to grow; and then burn.

Comment: Street seating in Snohomish needs to get permit or go

With the pandemic emergency over, the city can’t allow street seating to remain unless permitted.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, Feb. 23

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Jaime Benedict, who works as a substitute teacher, waves to drivers on the corner of Mukilteo Speedway and Harbor Pointe Boulevard while holding a sign in support of the $240 million capital bond proposal for Mukilteo School District on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020 in Mukilteo, Wash. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Editorial: Bar set unfairly high for passage of school bonds

Requiring 60 percent approval denies too many students the schools and facilities they deserve.

Comment: Presidential primary launches state’s election season

With ballots in the mail, here’s what to know and how to prepare for making your choice for U.S. president.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Saturday, Feb. 24

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Forum: Keeping gazebo great idea, but who’s going to pay for it?

The Bayside Neighborhood has discussed this for three years, but the city doesn’t have the $300,000 to restore it.

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.