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THE NEED FOR ELECTORAL REFORM

The nation's top state election officials put turf ahead of democracy last week when they rejected the idea of mandatory uniform national standards for the voting process. If every vote deserves equal weight, it deserves equal counting.

That's not quite the way the National Association of Secretaries of State sees it. Although the organization's election reform task force supports voluntary national guidelines, the secretaries don't want Congress poking too deeply into state business.

The Constitution charges states with running elections. But the Florida election mess offers clear proof that there is a national interest in the way states carry out that duty, and a federal government that already legislates voting rights and defines qualifications for federal office also should set minimum standards for procedurally fair elections.

Now is the time to do just that. The last presidential election has spurred more than a dozen reform recommendations in Congress, and an estimated 300 bills in state legislatures. Although some of the fervor is fueled by partisan politics, the American public simply wants assurances that every vote will count and that flaws in the process won't erode the power of the ballot.

Although modernization is the target of many of the reform measures -- not to mention the focus of a joint MIT-Cal Tech study -- better technology isn't a complete answer. As noted by Doug Lewis, director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Election Center, many problems could be met by defining clearly what constitutes a valid vote, and spelling out procedures for recounts.

Despite their states' rights argument against mandatory uniform standards, the secretaries of state did develop good reform recommendations in a number of problem areas. In addition to modernized voting equipment -- with, of course, the help of federal funding -- the association encouraged states to adopt equal-treatment Election Day rules and procedures, called for aggressive voter education and outreach programs, backed better training for poll workers and election officials, and demanded equal access to the election system for the elderly, disabled and minority communities.

It also called for more accurate voter registration rolls and better absentee ballot procedures.

That's a solid checklist for state election reform efforts, which so far in New York have involved more talk than action. Here, a state Senate majority task force will look at reforms, the Assembly majority will hold hearings and the attorney general is expected to issue recommendations.

Congressional action may come sooner. Democrats, at a weekend policy retreat, got what many considered a promise from President Bush to include reform costs in his budget. Proposals already in Congress range from a national buyout of punch-card ballot machines to studies by the General Accounting Office or bipartisan task forces.

The day after the secretaries of state unveiled their recommendations, Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Sam Brownback of Kansas had a handful of them on hand for a forum on their bipartisan bill calling for an independent commission and $2.5 billion in reform-measure funding over the next five years.

There is no lack of proposals. The test will be crafting the best of them into better protection for everyone's vote. Better technology will play a role, but that goal is best reached through uniform standards uniformly applied. The nation needs to set that standard, and the states must meet it.

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