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Rallying around imperfect vote bill

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- A year to the day after the Supreme Court settled the presidential election of 2000 and created a partisan firestorm in the country, Democratic and Republican congressmen alike dutifully trudged to the microphone on the House floor on Wednesday and accepted the possible.

Often in precisely the same words, they reminded each other not to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good" by voting against the bipartisan election reform bill before them that was "less than perfect."

Even joining the parade were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had protested vehemently that the bipartisan vehicle crafted by Republican Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio and Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland had insufficiently addressed the deprivation of voter rights in black precincts in Florida a year earlier.

Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, chairperson of the caucus, observed benignly that "the least we ask is when people vote, their votes are counted." But she went on: "I can appreciate the positive points of this bill." She expressed the hope that it would be strengthened in the Senate but concluded that "I do believe this bill is a step in the right direction."

A clear majority of the House agreed. A motion by Democratic Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey to send the bill back to committee to toughen minimum compliance standards and give clearer assurance of polling accessibility to the disabled was rejected before overwhelming passage.

The bill provides $400 million to states and counties to replace the confusing punch-card system that caused havoc in Florida with technologically advanced systems, and $2.25 billion for other upgrading and voter registration and education. The Senate is expected to beef it up and Mr. Hoyer said that, if so, "my inclination would be to support the stronger measures" in a conference to hash out the differences.

The climate in the House at the bill's consideration was markedly different from the stormy one that existed just a year ago when the Supreme Court by a 5-4 vote ordered recounting in Florida to cease, thereby awarding the presidency to George W. Bush over Al Gore. Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana marveled over the change from the "much more contentious" atmosphere that existed then in the House, before Sept. 11 and the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill.

While those events may have contributed to the more agreeable attitude demonstrated in the House vote, it seemed more the result of the awareness of both Democrats and Republicans that they could not let the year pass without getting something done about the glaringly flawed election process.

Some Democrats could not resist final expressions of outrage at the 2000 election's outcome stemming from erratic vote-counting and other processes in Florida. And one Republican groused again about an "army of [Democratic] lawyers" flocking to the state to turn the tide for Mr. Gore.

Several legislators of both parties agreed with Democratic Rep. William Clay of Missouri that the Ney-Hoyer bill was "a compromise and a work in progress." But if it passes, politics often being driven by passions and pressures, the heat may well be off for any further reform for some time. That's why if the states are to be required really to clean up their acts in the whole business of electing presidents, this should be the time to do it right.

Unmentioned in all that was said in the conciliatory love-fest over this less-than-perfect bill was the unwillingness to address any action to deal with the other major culprit, the Electoral College that permitted the candidate who got the fewer votes -- by half a million in 2000 -- to become president.

Even though for the fourth time in our history the highest vote-getter was denied the presidency, the House reformers refused even to consider any change on grounds that small states that supposedly benefit from existence of this "college" would not agree to meddle with the Constitution.

But voters more often than not aren't even aware of this anachronistic institution and are appalled when they learn the popular-vote winner can be denied the presidency. How many more such results have to occur before these self-proclaimed reformers decide even to face up to this travesty?

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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