The Blog

Holding Out on Reform

Only two senators voted against last week's bipartisan election-reform bill: Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton.

12:00 AM, Oct 22, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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AN ELECTION REFORM ACT in the works since the last presidential election headed to the president's desk last Wednesday after receiving approval from the Senate.

The Help America Vote Act passed 92-2, with only New York senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton opposed. Clinton and Schumer claim that the bill's tougher requirements for identification at polling places may prevent or discourage minorities from voting.

"For the nation it's a good bill, but for New York it's a bad bill," said Schumer. Clinton says she fears the identification provision "will disproportionately affect ethnic and racial minorities, recently naturalized American citizens, language minorities, the poor, the homeless, the millions of eligible New York voters who do not have a driver's license, and those individuals who otherwise would have exercised their right to vote without these new provisions."

Clinton fails to mention that, in addition to driver's licenses, the bill allows the use of Social Security numbers, utility bills, government check stubs, and several other forms of identification. Furthermore, it stipulates that first-time voters who do not have identification will be assigned a four-digit code to allow election officials to be sure they vote only once. Looks like there's something for everyone.

For the last two decades, New York has used a digital signature verification system. All a voter needs to register is a signature that is scanned into a computer. On Election Day, the voter simply signs the book of registered voters and the signatures are compared. This system seems to have worked pretty well.

Nevertheless, the Constitution gives Congress the power to alter states' arrangements for congressional and presidential elections, and the present bill contains more good than bad by any standard. Senate Rules chairman Chris Dodd says the reforms "will help America move beyond the days of hanging chads, butterfly ballots, and illegal purges of voters and accusations of voter fraud."

The legislation authorizes $3.9 billion for new voting equipment, training poll workers, and similar improvements. It also provides for provisional ballots for those whose identification is questionable, second chances for voters who make mistakes, uniform and nondiscriminatory statewide voter registration lists to be established by states, and a new Election Assistance Commission to help states implement the changes.

Senator Christopher S. Bond, the Missouri Republican who cosponsored the bill, said, "We need to change the law to make it easier to vote and tougher to cheat." Bond has long complained about voter fraud and error, and referenced a few colorful incidents of the 2000 election during floor debate: "I like dogs, and I respect the dearly departed," he said, "but I don't think they should be allowed to vote."

Clinton and Schumer's concerns about the identification provision may have less to do with the provision itself than with the reaction to the bill by certain influential parties. In New York's Democratic primary last year, minorities made up 45 percent of voters--clearly a constituency Clinton and Schumer can't afford to alienate. Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Latino civil rights organization, says in an October 9 letter that his group opposes the legislation because, among other things, the bill contains language "requiring that any registration to be invalidated if the person registering forgets to check off boxes declaring that he or she is a U.S. citizen. Because voters already must affirm their citizenship when they sign the registration form, it is unnecessary to require that this box be checked for registration. Many elderly and low-income voters, as well as voters with low levels of literacy, who find filling out forms difficult, may inadvertently make the mistake of failing to check the box and will, as a result, disproportionately be kept off the registration rolls." (emphasis added)

Several of his other qualms about the legislation were echoed by Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington office. "We are not thrilled about [the identification provision]," she said. "That was something that the Republicans really stuck their heels in the ground on."

Bush has promised to sign the legislation and is expected to do so early this week.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.