Analysis: ID issue stalls election bill

By PETER ROFF, UPI National Political Analyst  |  March 5, 2002 at 3:38 PM
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WASHINGTON, March 5 (UPI) -- "The long count" used to mean the 1927 Dempsey-Tunney title fight, where Jack Dempsey's refusal to go to a neutral corner after knocking down the champ gave Gene Tunney a few extra seconds to rest on the canvas.

Tunney won the fight in a unanimous decision in a fight forever tainted by the controversy.

Since November 2000, the long count has meant Florida, where an unclear election day outcome changed American politics.

Bush won after numerous legal proceedings that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. His victory, by a vote of 7 to 3 or 5 to 4, depending on who is telling the story, is also tainted as the highest court in the land stopped the recount, upheld Florida's certification of Bush's win of the state's 25 electoral votes and, with them, the presidency.

That Bush is the president is no longer disputed. What is open to discussion are the potential modifications to the federal election process to insure that last fall's long count never happens again.

Therein lies the initial problem. No one can agree what went wrong.

In his controversial book "Breaking the Deadlock," 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard A. Posner argues that most of the proposed election reforms focus on giving each party an edge over the other rather than what, if anything, was wrong with the system.

Gore partisans claim poorly designed ballots and outdated technology cost their man votes. They say many Gore voters were turned away from polling places because their names were erroneously purged from the voter roles.

Supporters of George W. Bush argue problems existed and that they worked to his disadvantage.

They cite the late delivery of overseas military ballots, a reduction in turnout because at least one television network called the state for Gore while Florida polls were still open, and voter fraud.

The last is, for Republicans, the third rail of election reform.

The Senate reform debate stalled Monday when the GOP, unable to defeat a floor amendment offered by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., started a filibuster that the Democrats were unable stop.

After two failed attempts at cloture, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pulled the bill, moving on to energy legislation.

The Senate reform package, S. 565, the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act of 2001, has been in the works for more than a year. It is the product of intense internal Senate negotiations to produce a bill with strong bipartisan support that the president could sign.

Senate sources say controversial amendments were defeated in bi-partisan fashion as part of the effort to maintain that faith.

According to the Republicans, Schumer violated that informal agreement when he attempted to defang an anti-voter fraud provision on which the GOP insisted. Democrats counter that no such agreement existed.

Section 103(b) of the legislation addresses the potential for fraudulent voting by mail. Under existing law, anyone who registers to vote by mail can mail in their ballot at election time. If the signature on the ballot matches the signature on the registration form, the vote is counted.

Opponents of current law believe that creates a loophole where one person can register under different names, casting fraudulent ballots with signatures that match bogus registrations.

The proposed reform requires first time voters to furnish proof of their identity in person to a registrar before their mail-in ballot could be counted.

Intense negotiations between senators before the bill came to the floor resulted in a valid photo ID, a current utility bill, a current bank statement, a current government check, a current paycheck with the name and address of the recipient or any current government document that linked the person to the name and address of the registered voter as acceptable proof.

Republicans, led by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., had pushed hard for the measure in part because it forced the Senate to debate the problem of voter fraud on the Senate floor, something members of both parties assiduously have avoided up to this point. Bond has claimed that voter fraud was a serious problem in Missouri in the 2000 election.

Democrats said that the reform, minus the signature option, would disenfranchise poor and disabled voters who might have difficulty producing one of the documents on the list.

Schumer's amendment, which Democrats later agreed to withdraw to get the bill back on track, would have added the existing signature match system back into the proof of identity formula -- nullifying the proposed reforms.

Robert Richie, of the non-partisan Center for Voting and Democracy, acknowledges that the concerns expressed by the GOP may have validity but are not worth sacrificing the whole bill.

He is, he says, aware of no hard evidence of widespread or organized efforts to exploit the vote by mail system, but he acknowledges that it could be done.

"There is something sensible about trying to address it but, at the same time, when you compare it to the larger issues like the 6 million votes that were lost due to problems with registration, we are not talking about anything remotely comparable in terms of the numbers of voters," Richie said.

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