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Where's Bush on election reform?


WASHINGTON -- After prevailing in the closest presidential election in history -- which only 50 percent of Americans said in a recent poll he had won "fair and square" -- George W. Bush gave every indication that he would be a strong voice for federal election reform.

Eleven days after taking office, President Bush met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus and promised them that he would give serious attention to fixing the nation's election system. "This is America," the president said. "Everyone deserves the right to vote."

In March, his spokesman assured us that "the president wants to make certain that one of the focuses of attention this year is electoral reform."

But as President Bush begins his second 100 days in office, it's increasingly clear that a shroud of silence is stifling this issue at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Social Security reform, energy policy and national missile defense -- important issues all -- have vaulted to the top of the president's policy agenda. Election reform -- an issue so central to the integrity of our democracy -- remains MIA.

That's not only a shame, it's also a mistake. No issue would benefit more from executive leadership, as the president's younger brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, demonstrated. And no issue is riper for bipartisan cooperation.

To his credit, Governor Bush seized the initiative on election reform just a day after Al Gore offered his concession in December. He appointed a respected bipartisan task force that made recommendations to the state Legislature earlier this year.

The Florida Legislature heeded many of the task force suggestions and passed a sweeping election reform bill that, among other things, would ban unreliable punch-card voting systems, provide funding for replacement equipment and require provisional ballots and automatic recounts in close elections. The governor signed the measure into law.

This activist approach, however, contrasts sharply with the Bush administration's failure to engage on election reform. Since meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, the president has rarely mentioned the issue in public. Neither his budget nor the GOP budget resolutions passed by the House and Senate included funds for election reform. And he has failed to respond to a letter sent by 207 House Democrats more than a month ago urging him to enunciate his principles on this issue.

Even Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, whose Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is holding hearings on election reform, said recently that he would "like to see him [Mr. Bush] issue some principles as he has done on other issues."

It's true that numerous election reform bills have been introduced in Congress and several House and Senate committees have begun hearings. However, bipartisan congressional action is only half of the equation. This issue -- which is the civil rights issue in this session of Congress -- demands presidential leadership. But, so far, that leadership has been lacking.

The shroud of silence must be lifted. President Bush must engage on election reform. Our nation and its citizens should expect no less.

Steny H. Hoyer, who represents Maryland's 5th Congressional District, is a member of the House Democratic leadership and is the ranking member on the House Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal elections.

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