Negotiators reach deal on legislation to overhaul voting

Saturday, October 5, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Sen. Kit Bond insists he loves dogs. And respects the dearly departed. But not so much they should be registered to vote.

"Protecting the integrity of the ballot box is important to all Americans, but especially to Missouri because of my state's sad history of widespread vote fraud," the Republican said Friday as he celebrated a deal reached by House and Senate negotiators on legislation aimed at improving elections.

The bill, which will send nearly $4 billion to states to upgrade outdated voting machines, improve voter registration methods and make polling booths accessible to the disabled, also includes several measures designed to prevent vote fraud.

A chaotic night

The legislation is a response to balloting problems that plagued the November 2000 presidential election and delayed a decision on a winner for 36 days. Those problems overshadowed the chaotic election night in St. Louis, where hundreds of voters were turned away from the polls and a judge ordered they remain open after their scheduled close, a ruling overruled later in the evening.

The accusations of voter fraud spilled over into the next election in the city, a mayoral primary in March 2001, when 3,800 voter registration cards were turned in just before the registration deadline. Among the names on the cards were several dead people and a dog named Ritzy Mekler.

The legislation's provisions include making conspiracy to commit vote fraud a federal crime. Other anti-vote fraud measures include:

Requiring states to maintain a statewide voter registration list.

Requiring new voters who register by mail to provide proof of identity at some point in the process, whether at initial registration, when they vote in person or by mail.

If a poll is held open beyond the time provided by state law, all votes cast after the scheduled close are provisional.

"This legislation recognizes that illegal votes dilute the value of legally cast votes -- a kind of disenfranchisement no less serious than not being able to cast a ballot," Bond said.

The legislation also addresses concerns raised by Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay and others, who blamed the city election board's use of an "inactive" voter list for the confusion at St. Louis' polls that required keeping them open past their scheduled close.

The bill would allow voters who do not appear on a registration list or lacking proper identification to cast a provisional ballot. Those ballots would not be counted unless they are later verified as a legal vote under state law.

Said Republican Rep. Roy Blunt, "I am glad that we were able to make specific allowances for provisional voting, so no one who believes that they are registered to vote will be turned away because of faulty record keeping."

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