Millender-McDonald urges election reform

While election reform recently has received attention from Democrats in both chambers, a key Democrat urged the House Appropriations Committee last week to fully fund the administration of elections.

On Wednesday, House Administration Commitee Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) wrote to House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) requesting the additional $800 million that was authorized for the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

"Congress must continue to support HAVA and take every reasonable step to ensure all Americans have confidence in the fairness and accuracy of our elections," Millender-McDonald wrote. "Therefore, I respectfully request that you support fair and transparent elections by providing the $800 million balance of HAVA Title II payments due to the states."

In the letter, Millender-McDonald said $3.9 billion was authorized for HAVA election improvement for fiscal years 2003 through 2005, but that Congress has appropriated only $3 billion of the funds.

"While the [U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC)] has distributed all the appropriated funds to the states, states desperately need additional funding to continue implementing HAVA requirements in the coming years," Millender-McDonald wrote in the letter.

The additional $800 million is needed for states to meet the minimum standards of the act, according to an EAC spokesman. Even if states are not given enough funding to meet the HAVA requirements, they are obligated to comply.

The missing funds would mostly be used to implement voting-system standards, statewide voter registration lists and information that has to be posted at sites, another EAC spokesman said.

Recently, Democrats in the House and Senate have renewed their interest in election reform, making one Republican aide question the timing of Millender-McDonald's request.

"If we are going to do a complete overhaul of HAVA, it seems like a waste of taxpayers' dollars," the aide said, noting that Democrats have recently had their eye on voting reforms that would require a paper trail in elections.

In addition, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), ranking member of the committee, declined to sign on to the letter, the aide said.

In the letter, Millender-McDonald said that states have used the HAVA funds to reform balloting procedures, update voting equipment, improve disability access to polling places, develop voter-registration database systems and make several other changes. But the additional funds are still needed.

Last week, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced legislation that would require a paper ballot to be printed and verified by voters after they cast their votes. The legislation would appropriate an additional $300 million to states, a Holt aide told The Hill.

"Until we require that voting systems produce a voter-verified paper ballot, the results of our elections will always be uncertain," Holt said in a press release last week. "All Americans deserve to be confident that their vote will be counted, and it is my hope that the 110th Congress will act soon to pass legislation that will ensure elections are fair, accessible, and auditable."

On Wednesday, the Senate Rules and Administration Committee held a hearing on election reforms. Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also has called for a paper trail in elections.

"Knowing what we now know, can we afford to wait, and not require a voter-verified paper record of each voter's vote?" Feinstein said in her opening remarks at the hearing. "I believe that the time has come for Congress to help ensure that we have such a record in all federal elections."

Ehlers said creating a paper trail for electronic voting machines wouldn't solve any of the current problems.

"That would just perpetuate what created the problem in the first place," Ehlers said. "People who talk about a paper trail forget that punch-card ballots are a paper trail."

He continued: "I'm sure we'll have lots of discussion, but if we are going to do something called a paper trail I will object because what we really need, we need verifiable redundancy. [A] paper trail may not be a good answer."

According to Millender-McDonald's letter, state and local election officials and civil and disability groups have urged Millender-McDonald to increase HAVA funding.

"Every organization emphasized that full funding of HAVA is essential to continue the safeguards of our democracy," the letter read.

In all, 31 groups corresponded with the committee seeking more funds. Those included the National Association of Secretaries of State, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the Alliance for Retired Americans, Common Cause and the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Over the last five years, the NCSL has been urging Congress to fully appropriate HAVA, said Susan Frederick of the NCSL. Calling for the additional $800 million is "nothing new."

The Department of Justice ensures that states are in compliance with the law.

Jackie Kucinich contributed to this report.