Next Big Reform: The Way We Vote ; Reinventing the Election Process Grabs Attention of State and Federal Lawmakers, Though Pricetag May Be Steep

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As the presidential race extends yet another week into its "challenge phase," scores of legislators at national, state, and local levels are already working to make sure that an election like this one never happens again.

From amending the Constitution to chad-proofing ballots, election reform may be a first task for Congress and state legislatures across the United States. It's also creating a bonanza for entrepreneurs eager to move election technology into the 21st century - or at least out of the 19th.

Some proposals aim to work out kinks in the system: Decide what constitutes a vote before television crews converge outside the recount center. Scrap archaic voting machines and baffling ballots. Clean up voting lists. Train poll workers to cope with floods of new voters or absentee ballots.

Other suggestions, such as abolishing the Electoral College, reopen some of the toughest issues the Founding Fathers debated when they drafted the Constitution.

"It's pretty clear from this election that we need to modernize our voting equipment. Having a hodgepodge of systems using 19th- century technology doesn't cut it when we can put a man on the moon," says Eric Olson of the nonprofit Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, Md.

Upgrading and standardizing the voting process may be the first fix - and the punch-card ballot, the first casualty. Reps. William Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts and Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina are proposing legislation this week to develop national standards for the conduct of federal elections, including outlawing the ballots that introduced the world to the many ways voters can punch - but not quite - a piece of cardboard.

Congressman Delahunt had a crash course in dimpled and dangling chads when his 1996 congressional primary race wound up in the courts. He lost the race on primary night, but sued in state court to have more than 900 dimpled ballots counted as votes. They were, and Delahunt eventually won the seat by 108 votes. After that controversial recount, Massachusetts outlawed punch-card voting.

"Massachusetts fixed its ballot problem and used public outrage to help build the momentum to make changes," says Steve Schwadron, an aide to Delahunt.

Under the terms of the Delahunt/Graham proposal, a bipartisan commission, including state and local representatives, will study the "accuracy, integrity, and efficiency" of federal election procedures. Washington will also establish federal matching grants to help states upgrade their voting systems.

Any moves to dictate election policy to the states could run up against constitutional issues. But advocates of reform say there is a federal interest in how states manage elections for national offices.

Congress is gearing up for hearings on many of the glitches of Election 2000, including botched media coverage on election night, the timeliness and accuracy of vote counts, and mishandled overseas military ballots. …