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Election Overhaul Is Urged

Times Staff Writer

In a report to be presented today to President Bush and congressional leaders, former President Carter and former Secretary of State James A. Baker III are recommending a widespread overhaul of election practices to make it easier for Americans to vote and to guarantee that their votes are counted.

Seeking to overcome the flaws that brought election turmoil to Florida in 2000 and to Ohio last year -- and that cast doubt on the outcome nationally -- they are calling for election oversight to be removed from politicians and given to nonpartisan election professionals.

The former president, a Democrat, and the former secretary of State, a Republican, are the co-chairmen of the private Commission on Federal Election Reform, a 21-member bipartisan panel that spent five months studying the most pressing problems with the nation’s electoral system. It follows on the work of a similar commission, led by Carter and former President Ford, that studied irregularities in the 2000 presidential race.

By urging greater professional and state involvement in running elections, the current panel would reverse more than 200 years of partisan and local control of elections while seeking to overcome what it called a “new and dangerous” belief among those on an election’s losing side that the electoral process is now “unfair.”

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The recommendations run against “the tremendous vested interest of local election administrators” by moving control of elections “out of the hands of partisan, self-interested actors,” said Richard Pildes, an expert on voting rights and election law at the New York University School of Law. He called the findings “extremely important.”

Congressional action would be needed to implement some of the panel’s 87 recommendations; states could enact others. The expected cost for all the recommendations would be $1.35 billion, the report said.

After Carter and Baker present the 91-page report to Bush and then to Congress, it will be posted at www.american.edu/Carter-Baker. The two men hope that some of their goals can be achieved before the 2008 presidential election.

“The American people are losing confidence in the system, and they want electoral reform,” Carter said in a statement accompanying the report. He said the changes the commission had proposed “represent the best path toward modernizing our electoral system.”

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Baker said he hoped the report would “help transform the sterile debate between Democrats and Republicans on election reform issues and provide the impetus for our federal and state leaders to take action now, when we still have plenty of time before our next presidential election.”

Baker played a central role for Bush during the Florida vote recount in 2000, building the Supreme Court case that stopped the tally with Bush leading by 537 votes.

If the states adopt the recommendation that nonpartisan officials run elections, the process would be removed from offices such as that led in 2000 by then-Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was at the same time a co-chair of Bush’s Florida campaign.

Her dual role raised questions about the integrity of the vote, just as the partisanship of Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, a co-chair of Bush’s 2004 campaign in that state, raised some doubts about the fairness of the presidential voting there last year.

As in Florida in 2000, if Bush had lost the Ohio vote he would have lost the election.

Supporting its call for nonpartisan election offices, the report said that “we cannot build confidence in elections if secretaries of State responsible for certifying votes are simultaneously chairing political campaigns.”

In response to concern that votes cast on electronic machines might not be counted -- one of the factors that surfaced in Florida -- the panel recommended a system that would create a paper record of the vote, to give voters confidence “that their votes will be counted accurately.”

And the report echoed the call by others that political parties hold four regional presidential primaries, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, rather than the week-by-week contests that give undue influence to states with early primary dates. If the political parties do not make the changes by 2008, “Congress should legislate the change,” the report said.

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Among the commission’s other recommendations:

* Establishment of a “universal voting registration system.” States, rather than local jurisdictions, would be responsible for the accuracy of voter lists. State lists should be interchangeable so that “people would need to register only once in their lifetime, and it would be easy to update their registration information when they move.”

* A greater role for states in registering potential voters. In addition, states should make it easier for ex-felons who have met their sentencing and parole requirements to register to vote, with the exception of registered sex offenders.

* Implementation of a uniformly accepted photo identification system to ensure that a would-be voter is the person on a voting list. States should establish more offices, including mobile facilities, to make it easier for non-drivers to register and receive photo IDs.

The report reflects the tensions among Democrats, Republicans, civil liberties groups and others interested in the election system. For instance, civil libertarians have expressed concern that a voter registration card could lead to establishment of a national ID card. But the panel contends that discrimination against minorities could be reduced if poll workers were not permitted to apply a variety of standards and were instead required to recognize one card.

Robert A. Pastor, the panel’s executive director, said in a telephone interview that Carter and Baker conducted “a very intensive dialogue” before reaching agreement on some of the proposals and managed to advance each party’s positions.

Whether the report sits on shelves with other reform efforts or induces significant change in the electoral system depends to some extent on whether Carter and Baker can generate momentum among national political leaders. Another factor will be whether individual states -- 24 already use some form of photo identification at the polls, and 12 others are considering it -- enact new electoral laws. (California requires a photo ID for first-time voters who register by mail without providing photo identification with their application.)

At the heart of the effort is a concern that many Americans don’t believe that their votes will be counted.

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Several polls shortly before the 2004 election found a lack of confidence in the integrity of the vote count. The CBS News/New York Times Poll found that only 35% of those surveyed had “a lot” of confidence that the votes would be properly counted.

“Absent this report,” Pastor said, looking ahead to the 2008 election, “the prospects for any serious election reform at the national level were quite slim.”

The report prepared by Carter and Ford after the 2000 election led to legislation in 2002 that provided states with nearly $4 billion to replace the sort of outdated punch-card ballots that led to some of the confusion in Florida.


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