WASHINGTON – A year after the Florida presidential recount debacle, Rep. Steny Hoyer and a Republican colleague introduced a bill to give states federal funding to revamp election systems, and to create minimum national voting standards.
Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, on Wednesday unveiled the bipartisan “Help America Vote Act of 2001,” which would appropriate $2.65 billion to election reform, the first such federal financial assistance of its kind.
Of that amount, $400 million is dedicated to replacing outdated punch-card voting systems, which attracted attention during the Florida recounts. The rest would go to the states over a three-year period for a variety of election reform improvements.
It came a day after Maryland officials delayed action on a plan to replace the oldest voting machines in the state, the first step in a plan to phase in a new statewide voting system. The state Board of Elections is not expected to take that vote before Dec. 12.
The Hoyer-Ney plan was attacked by some groups, who said it does not go far enough to protect the rights of minorities and disabled voters, among others. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., said in a written statement that he expects “every major civil rights organization, disability rights advocates and organized labor” to join him in protesting the bill.
But it won praise from state government representatives, including the National Association of Secretaries of State. It could vote Thursday to endorse the legislation, which would be the first time in the association’s 97-year history it has endorsed any bill.
“I feel strongly that this legislation is the right reform for America right now,” said Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh, the association’s president.
Hoyer repeatedly said Wednesday that the bill, by some standards, is imperfect, and the result of compromise aimed at ensuring passage. But he said it is needed and “will address the glaring flaws in our election system before next November’s elections.”
The bill would create an Election Assistance Commission to review procedures for federal elections and develop voluntary performance standards for state voting systems. Replacing the old punch card systems would also be voluntary.
Federal payments would help states establish accurate lists of eligible voters, improve verification of voters, improve equipment and encourage voter participation. It would also be used to recruit and train poll workers, provide greater access for persons with disabilities and educate voters.
Minimum standards for states would include requirements that they maintain accurate voter registration records, adopt of a standard definition of what constitutes a successful vote and give voters the opportunity to correct errors when voting.
But opponents charge that the minimum requirements do not go far enough to protect speakers of foreign languages or disabled voters. And it is far too easy for states to opt out of even those minimal requirements, they said.
“The problem with most of the so-called minimum standards in the Ney-Hoyer bill, is there is a way to opt out,” said Hilary Shelton, director of Washington bureau of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “It says the states should do it, unless there’s another way you’d like to do it.”
Shelton said the bill does not set standards for voting place accessibility for the disabled, for example, and that it would let states decide whether or not their voting machines are accessible.
The National Council of La Raza worries that the bill fails to require translators or bilingual ballots at voting stations, said Angela Arboleda, a civil rights policy analyst for the council.
“What this means is that we’re going to have language minorities, including Latinos, disenfranchised one more time,” Arboleda said.
In his written statement, Conyers pointed out other flaws in the legislation, including a lack of a minimum standard for voter education and an inability to gather information on state non-compliance.
But Thornburgh believes the bill covers education and process problems in the current election system, as well as technical difficulties.
“Election reform is about more than just plugging in new voting systems around America,” he said.