Sunday, March 20, 2005

Election reform proposals ignite clash over states rights

Associated Press
18 March 2005

WASHINGTON - As Congress considers possible election reforms in light of another close presidential race, a fight is shaping up between lawmakers who want national standards and state officials, who maintain that running elections is a state right.

This underlying ideological conflict - federal power vs. states rights - is a tension that has been a part of American politics since the beginning of the union. But how it plays out on this issue is critical to what future election changes end up being put in place.

"Our system certainly is not perfect ... but we are concerned by what we see is a movement to federalize elections," Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh said at a recent congressional hearing. "The states, clearly, must be allowed to do what we do best."

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney, R-Ohio, whose committee oversees election issues, agreed that making election reforms strikes a "horrific balance" between states and the federal government, but he has said the reported problems that followed both the 2000 and 2004 elections demand Congress' attention.

Congress was able to sidestep this conflict when it passed its landmark Help America Vote Act in 2002 by guaranteeing states large amounts of money if they installed certain reforms, such as provisional balloting, d voting machines and statewide registration databases.

Now, as state officials struggle to implement these reforms with less money than the law promised they are bristling over a slew of recent legislative proposals that would force additional standards on them, such as national polling place hours of operation, voter eligibility criteria, and restrictions on election chiefs serving in political campaigns.

In response to legislation on these reforms - from Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and John Kerry of Massachusetts, both possible presidential contenders in 2008 - the National Association of Secretaries of State sent a harshly worded resolution to members of Congress.

In it, they urged lawmakers to dissolve state election officials' oversight organization, the federal Election Assistance Commission, which was created by the Help America Vote Act to set election standards that states must implement in order to receive funding.

"Soon, you will be asked to consider legislation that would dictate national standards for administering elections. The passage of any such law would undercut the states' ability to effectively administer elections and interfere with the progress they have made in implementing election reforms," the elections officials wrote in a letter to lawmakers.

Rebecca Vigil-Giron, New Mexico's secretary of state and president of NASS, said the group wasn't downplaying the need for election improvements. They were reacting to the pending legislation in an attempt to head off any consideration of national election standards.

But Ney and other lawmakers on his committee, which has jurisdiction over election issues, called the resolution premature and disappointing. They urged state officials to cooperate with the election commission.

Stanley Renshon, a political psychologist at the City University of New York, said the problem is that since states allowed Congress to make some election reforms in its 2002 law, with the promise of funding, they essentially opened the door to additional reforms.

"What the states would prefer is a lot of funding without a lot of oversight. But once you open the door and let the federal government in, it is what it is," he said. "The federal government thinks that once it hands out money, it likes to see what happens to it."

John Green, director of the University of Akron's Ray C. Bliss Institute for Applied Politics, said offering federal funding is one way the federal government gets past the states rights conflict. On other issues, such as with the Clean Air Act, the federal government sets standards that it then allows states to implement.

If neither of these methods works, however, the only other outcome to this conflict is an all-out fight over jurisdiction, Green said.

"What we're seeing now is the states and the federal government wanting to avoid that third alternative. They're hard bargaining now, so they won't have that nasty confrontation," Green said, adding that the score is pretty even in terms of who wins that battle.


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9:02 AM  

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