WASHINGTON – In an effort to prevent a replay of electoral disputes in this year's presidential election, lawmakers Tuesday introduced bi-partisan legislation to modernize the way Americans vote.
“Despite over 200 years of elections, we vote as if we still live in the nineteenth century,” said Sen. Charles Schumer D-N.Y., who sponsored one of the bills. “I cast my first ballot nearly 30 years ago, and the way I voted that first time and the way I voted Nov. 7 is exactly the same way.”
“What occurred in this election simply must never happen again,” said Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who introduced a competing bill.
Legislation introduced by Schumer and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-KS, provides the Federal Elections Commission, the agency that enforces election laws, $10 million to conduct an in-depth, one-time study of current and possible election methods.
Some of the ideas the FEC will analyze include mechanisms already in place in other states, such as voting by computerized machines, mail and the Internet. The FEC would also look into changing ballot designs and the time and place of voting.
“This is not a federal mandate of election standards,” said Brownback. “We provide the means to states to implement the changes that they deem are most fitting for their needs.”
Later in the day, Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-NJ, and Mitch McConnell, R-KY, announced their attempt at bi-partisan election reform legislation. Their bill would create a permanent four-member commission within the FEC that would study current voting systems and make periodic recommendations for improving elections. The House version of the McConnell-Torricelli bill was introduced by Rep. Steve Rothman (D-NJ).
Both bills establish matching funds for states to use to modernize their voting systems. The Schumer-Brownback legislation provides $250; McConnell-Torricelli allots $100 million. Schumer acknowledged, however, that replacing outdated and problematic voting machines across the country could cost close to $1 billion.
“I don't think theirs will have the support of the localities that we do,” said Schumer referring to the McConnell-Torricelli bill. “They set up a whole new structure. They tear a part the FEC and put it back together. We're not trying to do anything grandiose here.”
But McConnell's position as chairman of the Senate rules committee, where all new legislation is referred to, should ensure that his bill gets prime attention.
The controversial punch card system, which may have caused some Florida ballots not to register votes, was developed by Thomas Edison in 1900. It's used by 32 percent of localities, more than any other voting system.
In New York City, 40-year-old lever machines broke on election day, and there wasn't anyone available to fix them, leaving many to stand in line for hours, said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York state League of Women Voters.
“Many people threw up their hands and didn't vote,” she said.
“In the face of declining turnout and lack of interest in the political process, we simply cannot afford to have outdated voting systems that are so cumbersome and frustrating that they discourage people from voting altogether,” said Schumer.