Congress Blasé About Carter-Baker

Posted September 19, 2005 at 7:02pm

A report from former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker outlining a comprehensive list of recommendations to improve the country’s elections system was met with a collective shrug from the lawmakers in a position to do something about it.

“I don’t see a whole lot of significance for the House to embark upon hearings,” said House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio). Ney was a key player in drafting the Help America Vote Act, which went into effect in 2002, and he noted that lawmakers had not yet had an opportunity to see all the provisions of that legislation put into practice. Ney said he didn’t outright oppose holding hearings on the new report’s suggestions, but as for timing he said: “not right now.”

The reaction in the Senate was only slightly less tepid.

A spokeswoman for Senate Rules and Administration Chairman Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that while Lott thanked Carter and Baker for “their time and energy and hard work. … HAVA is not even three years old.”

“We’ll probably be weighing the recommendations,” Lott’s spokeswoman continued. “I am sure at the appropriate time the Rules Committee will be looking at this.”

Ney and Lott head the two chambers’ respective committees overseeing elections.

American Enterprise Institute scholar and Roll Call contributing writer Norman Ornstein said Congress’ blasé attitude toward the report didn’t surprise him. A politically unappealing issue like election reform “only works if you have a few dedicated movers and shakers who understand the importance of the issue” and continue to press for attention, he said. Which is essentially what happened following the 2000 election.

Since then, a slew of outside groups have clamored for continued reform of election administration, but have met resistance from House and Senate leaders.

“The people who should be doing this, which is the people who crafted HAVA, aren’t interested,” Ornstein said.

For their part, Democrats on Monday spent much of their time criticizing just one of the report’s recommendations, which suggested mandating a “real ID” at the polls by 2010. Republicans have touted this issue in recent years as a way to combat vote fraud, while Democrats largely view it with deep suspicion.

“This proposal, if implemented, risks disenfranchising countless qualified voters on the basis of race, income, disability, and age,” wrote House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) and Senate Rules ranking member Chris Dodd (Conn.), both Democrats who represented their respective chambers in HAVA negotiations.

“Given that HAVA already struck a carefully balanced, bipartisan voter identification response to potential fraud, while also guaranteeing that no eligible voter be turned away at the polls, the Commission’s ID recommendation strikes us as unnecessary and indeed unwise,” Dodd and Hoyer wrote, adding that the report contains “no evidence” of fraud by voters appearing in person at the polls. “Yet, we know that for the 12 percent of the voting-age population that does not have a driver’s license, such a requirement erects new barriers to voting.”

A dozen liberal leaning organizations and voting rights groups joined Hoyer and Dodd’s condemnation of the commission’s recommendation as a “modern day poll tax.”

Although it was far from unanimous, the bipartisan commission was able to find a super majority consensus for the idea of an ID requirement at the polls. At a press event Monday, Carter strongly endorsed the proposal as one that would bring necessary security without disenfranchising voters.

The issue was discussed during debate of HAVA but never made it in the bill due to strong Democratic opposition. The idea has retained cache among Republicans, including both Ney and Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who chaired the Rules Committee during HAVA’s drafting. McConnell introduced a bill earlier this year that mirrors many of the anti-fraud provisions outlined in the commission’s recommendations, including an identification requirement.

HAVA was one of the most delicately negotiated bills in recent years, and Ornstein said the “active disdain” lawmakers in both parties have for changing it is a reflection of how difficult it was to get it done in the first place. “What it does reflect is an attitude that when they did this it was enormously painful,” Ornstein said.

Dodd and Hoyer’s statement alluded to that. “The Help American Vote Act was a carefully crafted balance between the twin goals of making it easier to vote and harder to defraud the system,” the two Democrats said. “Rather than maintaining that balance, the Commission’s Report tips the scale against ensuring that every eligible voter can exercise his or her fundamental right to vote.”

Democrats would like to see any reforms focus on access to the polls and ensuring minorities and other groups who have historically had unequal access to the franchise be given other ways to ensure their vote is counted, such as requiring states to count ballots for statewide and national office regardless of the precinct in which the individual casts a ballot.

Of course, Republicans would like to see that balance tipped in the other direction, with more emphasis on preventing fraud. To that end, Ney is holding a field hearing in late October in Milwaukee at the request of Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) on election fraud. An audit conducted by a nonpartisan state bureau found thousands of cases in which voters were listed on rolls more than once and, in a review of six municipalities, 98 votes that appear to have been cast illegally by felons.

Ney has also held a field hearing on the implementation of HAVA in the 2004 election in Columbus, Ohio.

“I’m not saying we can’t have a discussion on these issues. I’m not saying we won’t have a hearing on Baker-Carter,” Ney continued. “I think the bill as crafted is working very well. There hasn’t been massive screaming about the bill.”

While the issue has lost some of it’s prominence since the 2000 election, voting rights groups and a handful of liberal organizations have been persistently calling for modifications, or at the very least full funding of HAVA.

Congress has appropriated roughly $3 billion in HAVA funds to date, and another $830 million in promised funds are still outstanding.

That fact, Ornstein said, combined with the looming 2008 election, means that if Congress wants to address the issue before the next presidential balloting, it has to be done soon.

The Commission on Federal Election Reform is a project of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, American University Center for Democracy and Election Management, the Carter Center and ElectionLine.org.