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We must ensure that votes count


SIX MONTHS have passed since the flawed 2000 election threw democracy into chaos. Americans demand that President Bush and Congress act promptly to guarantee that our voting rights will be protected in future elections.

The president -- and Republican House and Senate leaders -- must respond for themselves. I am convinced, however, that the actions needed to restore confidence in the democratic process are straight-forward and achievable.

The first step toward comprehensive election reform must be a bipartisan commitment to enforcing the voting rights laws already on the books. That commitment -- and the confidence it will build -- will strengthen the movement toward putting additional protections in place.

I introduced legislation May 9 that calls on Congress to formally reaffirm our commitment to "one person, one vote," the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. House Resolution 139 also condemns election procedures that dilute minority voter participation and allow widespread disenfranchisement.

My bill would also direct the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to prepare detailed findings and recommendations about voting irregularities last year for further action by Congress and the Justice Department. Finally, it calls on the president and the attorney general to make enforcement of the Voting Rights Act a national priority.

The second step toward democratic reform requires that the president lead a national commitment to fund the cost of installing accurate voting equipment in every precinct. The difference between election reform results in Maryland and Florida demonstrates the positive impact that a serious commitment to voting accuracy can have.

Of the more than 2 million Maryland voters who voted in November, the number recorded as failing to cast a vote for president was 10,553 (a "no vote" rate of only 0.52 percent). In contrast, nearly 180,000 of the 6 million Florida voters were disenfranchised by a "no vote" rate of nearly 3 percent (six times greater than that in Maryland).

The failure rate in Florida "punch card" precincts was close to 4 percent. In fact, four separate Florida counties each had more "no votes" than did all of Maryland.

We must replace aging, unreliable punch-card voting machines. Along with a growing number of colleagues, I have co-sponsored Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer's proposal for increased federal support to the states to allow them to purchase accurate equipment.

We must be prepared to pay the federal government's fair share of the costs associated with reforming our election system. Estimates vary, but projected expenditures to modernize voting equipment and train election personnel may exceed $2 billion nationwide.

The states cannot afford to bear the entire cost, nor should they. That is why it is so disappointing that President Bush and the Republicans failed to provide any funding for election reform in their budget plan.

Once we have successfully reaffirmed our bipartisan commitment to election reform, we will be in a far better position to complete the process by adopting the democratic guarantees included in Michigan Rep. John Conyers' bill, the "Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act."

I co-sponsored Mr. Conyers' bill because every American deserves to receive a sample ballot for study well in advance of each election. If our right to vote is challenged, we should be allowed to cast a provisional ballot at the polling place. Every voting machine in America should give us protection against voting mistakes.

After what happened in November, election reform should be every elected official's top priority. Now is the time to make a down payment on restoring our faith in the democratic process.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Democrat, represents Maryland's 7th Congressional District.

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