Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- A year after a tumultuous election left the winner of the presidency in doubt for weeks, House leaders passed a $2.6 billion package that would send millions of dollars to states to improve voting systems.
Wednesday's 362-63 vote comes on the one-year anniversary one year after the Supreme Court halted a recount of Florida's ballot boxes in a move that essentially declared George W. Bush president.
Supporters lauded the bill by Reps. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, and Steny Hoyer, D-Md., as a major step forward. It establishes minimum standards, but gives states leeway to craft their own improvements.
"This legislation goes a long way toward adopting reforms advocated by the Ford-Carter Commission on Federal Election Reform, and is based on principles I endorsed and recommended to Congress in July," Bush said in a statement released after the vote.
But opponents complained the bill does not go far enough. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and several civil rights groups have pushed for mandatory standards.
"This is like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse," Conyers said.
Democrats complained as debate began Wednesday that Republicans had denied them an opportunity to offer amendments to the bill.
"This rule just stinks," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla. "If the House is going to consider an issue as important as the integrity of our election system, don't you think it should be open for debate?"
Hoyer, the top Democrat on the House Administration Committee, conceded that the bill doesn't do everything that everyone wanted -- particularly members of his own party.
"The way you get a bill that will pass and a bill that will make substantial progress is to compromise," Hoyer said. "This is not the end of the process. It is a very significant step."
Under the bill, states would get $650 million immediately, including $400 million so states could immediately replace punch-card voting systems. Punchcard ballots were blamed for many of the problems in Florida.
About 36 percent of U.S. voters used a punch-card machine last year, federal officials say.
The bill would also give states millions of dollars over the next three years to buy new voting equipment, better train poll workers and improve registration lists.
Minimum standards for states are also established in the bill, including a statewide voter registration system and allowing provisional voting. That means people who do not appear on election rolls but say they are eligible to vote could vote. Election officials would determine later whether the ballots were valid.
This idea was promoted strongly by Democrats after some Florida voters, many of them black, were turned away from the polls in error.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which has actively pushed for election reform since last year, remained wary of the House bill.
"This bill doesn't go far enough on several points," said black caucus chairwoman, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. Johnson said members hope to add amendments when Senate and House negotiators meet.
"No bill is ever perfect, particularly when you have to go through an intensive negotiation to get true bipartisan support," said Doug Lewis, director of the The Election Center, a nonpartisan group based in Houston. "It's as good as Congress is likely going to be able to pass."
Even House passage of the measure doesn't indicate smooth sailing.
Senate Republicans and Democrats are deadlocked on the issue, and there are only a few days left before lawmakers adjourn for the year.
Democrats in that chamber, backed by civil rights groups, are pushing a measure by Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd that would provide $3.5 billion for states to adopt uniform standards for voting machines by 2004.
States and local governments have adamantly opposed federal requirements.
House members are hoping their action will prompt the Senate to move faster.
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Bill's text can be found at http://thomas.loc.gov