One Year Out: No Time To Waste on Election Reform Funding

One year ago on Oct. 29, President Bush signed the most sweeping electoral reform legislation into law since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As the principal House sponsors of that legislation, the Help America Vote Act, we are pleased to report that much has been accomplished since then. Throughout most of 2001 and 2002, we worked in a bipartisan manner to develop a 21st century set of standards to improve the ease, accuracy and security of voting and registration throughout the United States.

This landmark law, which was endorsed by, among others, former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, authorized Congress to provide $3.86 billion to states to modernize obsolete voting systems that contributed to the 2000 election debacle. In fiscal 2003, Congress appropriated nearly $1.5 billion to that end.

To date, states have received $650 million of that amount to retire punch-card and lever voting machines and implement other important reforms. And now, with the president nominating four commissioners for the Election Assistance Commission — the body created under the law to provide states with guidance and technical assistance — we are hopeful that the additional $833 million appropriated last year will soon begin flowing to the states.

However, it is clear that we must do more if we want to ensure that the problems that plagued us three years ago are not repeated. And with our next national election only 365 days away, we have little time to waste.

In short, states need our help — immediately. As Minnesota Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, recently pointed out: “With the 2004 election cycle quickly approaching, there’s no time to spare.”

While last year’s appropriation for election reform was generous, it still fell $660 million below the amount authorized. And this year, only $500 million was included in the fiscal 2004 Transportation and Treasury appropriation bill for election reform. Last week, Sens. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) succeeded in amending that legislation to provide an additional $1 billion for federally mandated election reform. Without a doubt, that was a strong step in the right direction.

However, in the year-end negotiations on appropriations bills, we intend to urge our colleagues on both sides of the aisle and both sides of Capitol Hill to fulfill the authorization provided for in the Help America Vote Act by appropriating $1.86 billion in addition to the $500 million currently in the Transportation and Treasury bill.

The states are responsible for implementing the law’s mandates without regard to federal funding. But virtually every state in the nation faces a budget deficit, and for some the specter of layoffs, cuts to education and the early release of prison inmates looms. It’s simply unrealistic to expect them to finish the job on election reform without the federal assistance promised in the Help America Vote Act. And it’s incumbent on Congress to fulfill its obligation, lest this law be rendered nothing more than an unfunded mandate.

As Members of Congress from different political parties, it is not surprising that we often disagree with one another on matters of public policy. Election reform is not one of them. We agree there is no better time than now, before Congress adjourns for the year, for the White House and Congress to demonstrate their commitment to the integrity of our own democratic system by appropriating the remaining funds authorized under the Help America Vote Act.

Over the past two years this country has devoted vast resources to ridding the world of those who would employ the tools of terror to destroy systems of government that derive their legitimacy from the ballot box. For less than half the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan for one month, we can protect the legitimacy that comes from our own.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is the Minority Whip. Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) is chairman of the House Administration Committee.

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