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Momentum lost on election reform


POLITICIANS HAVE short attention spans, especially in Congress. For proof, look at the memory lapse surrounding last year's election screw-ups in Florida.

"Never again!" was the cry from politicians in December as the presidency hung in the balance because of vote-counting snafus. But now, the reaction among top leaders is, "What, me worry?"

Both Democrats and Republicans have failed to make national election reform a priority. President Bush is a prime culprit. You'd never know he was nearly the victim of Florida's flawed system.

House and Senate leaders aren't eager to act, either. When House Speaker Dennis Hastert tried to form a bipartisan panel to come up with recommendations, Democrats balked. The issue remains intensely partisan.

That shouldn't be. Shoddy electing practices can cost Republicans as well as Democrats. But the real harm is done to voters denied a basic democratic right.

About 2 million votes were not counted last November. That's 2 million Americans who tried to participate in the election and had their efforts negated.

Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer rightly called it "a stain on our democracy." Mr. Hoyer is one of the prime sponsors of a bipartisan bill that offers hope for fairer elections at a modest cost but without federalizing the election process.

The bill would help cities and counties offset some of the cost of replacing punch-card voting machines -- which have twice the error rate of other voting methods.

It also would set aside $140 million a year for voter education and training poll workers; $10 million for research on a better election system; and money to draft a model election code and set up voluntary standards.

This approach would encourage states to abandon error-prone machines without being heavy-handed. It wouldn't entangle Washington in telling states how to run elections. But it would suggest standards for states to shoot for.

The Hoyer bill has 60 co-sponsors. No one, though, is in a rush. That's a shame. The longer Congress delays, the more likely it is that nothing will happen.

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