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Election Officials Work on Making Changes

By ROBERT TANNER, Associated Press Writer

Monday, February 7, 2005

Flaw-proof election machines. Easy-to-read ballots. Registration systems that catch double-voters or dead voters still on the rolls.

For top state election officials meeting here, the pressure is on to make sure the election changes demanded after President Bush's disputed 2000 victory are in place by the Jan. 1 deadline imposed by Congress.

The goal is to have the changes ready for the November 2006 midterm elections, but many secretaries of state who gathered in Washington on Monday for four days of meetings think there are too many obstacles in their way. And they worry the federal government is undermining their authority with an assistance commission that is starting to act like a regulatory agency.

"A lot of states are still trying to sort out how to get to the deadlines," New Mexico Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron said. "That's a major, major challenge. We're probably a year behind schedule."

The three-term Democrat predicts it won't be until the 2008 presidential election that all the improvements Congress demanded are up and running everywhere.

State and local officials administer elections, not the federal government. But the secretaries worry federal election reforms are spilling beyond their boundaries, chipping away at state control and responsibility.

Their group, the National Association of Secretaries of State, approved a formal resolution that asks Congress to dissolve its oversight organization, the federal Election Assistance Commission, after the 2006 elections.

They also sought assurances from Justice Department officials that states that lag behind the Jan. 1 deadline won't be harshly punished, noting that among other things states still are waiting for federal standards for new voting machines.

While the disputed 2000 presidential election produced calls for reforms, Congress didn't pass its election law until 2002. Bush then took months to appoint members to a critical oversight commission that disburses money to the states. States have now received $2.2 billion.

The statewide, computerized voter registries the law demands can go a long way to eliminate the most common problems of valid voters being denied a chance to cast a ballot because of confusion or missing paperwork. They're also supposed to guard against voter fraud.

"We're going to have real checks and balances that did not ever exist there in the past," Vigil-Giron said.

Federal election officials warned the secretaries against seeking a delay in Congress' deadline. Voters already are upset that the improvements weren't in place for 2004, said Paul DeGregorio, a member of the federal commission.

"The average voter wonders why, when they see problems that occurred in this election, or had to wait in line for several hours to vote, why haven't these been fixed?" DeGregorio said.

The secretaries said they're all working hard to improve elections but question the commission's reach.

"They're going into rulemaking by another word _ not guidance," Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer said.

The election officials are even more concerned about proposals in Congress that would go beyond the 2002 law and put more federal control over elections.

"The overriding issue right now," said New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner, "is should our elections be run by the national government?"

Sen. Christopher Dodds of Connecticut and several other Senate Democrats sponsored a measure that would establish federal standards for voting systems, registrations and early voting, among other facets of elections that states decide.

Some officials doubted such a measure could get through the Republican-controlled Congress anyway, after the drawn-out battles over the 2002 election bill.

But advocates for more improvements in elections system warned that the secretaries, by taking a stance against the election commission, were making stronger elections systems more elusive.

"The hodgepodge quilt of laws, interpretations and regulations is a major national issue," said Miles Rapoport, a former Connecticut secretary of state and president of Demos, a liberal advocacy group election reforms. State and federal governments need to come together to have a "good conversation" about elections, he said.


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