House passes election overhaul compromise

WASHINGTON -- With a nod of approval from President Bush, the House passed a bill Thursday night to overhaul how elections are conducted by sending states billions of dollars for new voting machines and establishing statewide voter rolls.

The legislation, approved 357-48, is the result of months of bargaining between House and Senate negotiators. It would cost $3.8 billion over three years.

The Senate could take up the legislation by week's end.

The bill responds to the balloting problems in Florida that delayed a decision in the 2000 presidential election. A day earlier, President Bush signaled his intention to sign the measure.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the chief Democratic negotiator in the House, called the legislation "nothing less than a declaration of independence from hanging chads, butterfly ballots and the broken election system that nearly provoked a constitutional crisis."

His counterpart in the House, Republican Rep. Robert Ney of Ohio, said the bill puts to rest "all of the controversy."

"This is truly a great day for our democracy," said Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee.

Still, the measure had its detractors, particularly among Hispanic lawmakers who objected to new identification requirements included in the bill for first-time voters.

"They've made voter registration and the act of voting more difficult," complained Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-Texas. "It will disenfranchise individuals, individuals in my community."

The measure allows states with punch-card and lever voting systems to get money to buy upgraded machines if they want and requires provisional voting, which allows people who do not appear on election rolls but say they are eligible to vote to cast a ballot. Election officials later would determine whether the ballots were valid.

The bill also establishes statewide registration lists that would use the last four digits of a voter's driver's license or Social Security number as an identifier for the database. Voters with neither number would be assigned an identifying number by the state.

States would also have to ensure that at least one voting machine at a polling place is accessible to any disabled voters.

The identification language, also opposed by civil rights groups, would require voters who registered by mail to show identification the first time they vote. Photo IDs, utility bills or other documents would be allowed.

Kay J. Maxwell, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, said her group was concerned "the discriminatory identification provision in this legislation will erect barriers to voting."