WASHINGTON--November 7, 2000--Election Day--will forever call to mind Florida's butterfly ballots and pregnant chads. But the day was eventful in St. Louis, too.
The night before, Democratic Rep. William Clay had told a Gore-Lieberman rally that a lawsuit would be filed to force the polls to stay open longer than Missouri law allows. The next afternoon such a suit was filed, claiming that minorities were having trouble voting. Clay had been prescient about those troubles--or those troubles were fictitious, and he was part of a carefully planned operation.
The suit's lead plaintiff, Robert D. Odom, complained of being denied the right to vote. But someone noted that his problem might have something to do with the fact that he died in 1999. Later, Clay said, the plaintiff should have been Robert M. Odom, a Clay aide. But Odom's complaint, if there ever really was one, was vitiated when he voted that afternoon. By the time the compliant judge ordered the polls to stay open, voters were already receiving prerecorded telephone messages from Jesse Jackson saying they could vote late.
Matt Blunt, Missouri's secretary of state, says that among 1,384 ballots illegally cast were at least 62 by felons, 79 by people registered at vacant lots, 68 by people who voted twice and 14 cast in the name of dead people. Missouri law says court orders can be issued to secure the vote only for registered voters who were removed from the voting rolls by mistake. Of 1,268 applications for court orders, 1,233 were improperly granted, many for people who admitted they had never registered but persuaded the court with written reasons that included ``I was late registering due to me were going through a mental disorder,'' ``I want a Dem. president,'' ``For the democratic party,'' ``I'm a busy lady w/ 7 children'' and ``Found out about Gore from my mother.''
And: ``forgot to.'' Register, that is.
Amazingly few St. Louis residents forgot. Missouri Republican Sen. Kit Bond says that 247,135 of St. Louis' 258,532 voting-age residents were registered. That 96 percent registration rate was, strictly speaking, incredible. And almost one in 10 voters registered in St. Louis was registered to vote somewhere else, too.
All this is pertinent to the Senate's consideration, scheduled for this week, of an election reform bill born partly from Bond's fury about St. Louis' irregularities. There has been much talk about the putative problem of ``exclusion,'' making much of the myth of widespread intimidation and obstruction of black voters in Florida. Bond insists on addressing the real problem of excessive inclusion--of fraudulent votes.
Four of the bill's provisions are particularly notable:
--Statewide registration to make it more difficult for persons to be registered in several places, and more difficult for local political organizations to register noncitizens or nonexistent people.
--A requirement that when a person registers under provisions of the ``motor-voter'' law--registers when getting a drivers license--the registration card will at least ask if the person is a citizen, and will inform noncitizens that they may not register. The fact that these small, common-sensical requirements have not existed is itself telling.
--Provisional voting to allow a person not on the voting rolls to cast a vote which will be counted if it can be proved that a clerical error kept the person's name off the rolls.
--A bipartisan Election Administration Commission to help states and localities comply with federal law and other matters.
We have made some progress since a year ago. However, Florida's Legislature has drawn censorious squints from some exquisitely sensitive civil rights lobbyists who are alarmed by a new law that requires posting at polling stations a list of ``responsibilities'' of voters. For example, a voter should:
``Keep his or her voter address current''; ``Bring proper identification to the polling station''; ``Know how to operate voting equipment properly''; ``Ask questions when confused''; ``Check his or her completed ballot for accuracy.''
In this rights-obsessed era, talk of responsibilities is unusual. But not unconstitutional, as critics imply when they compare the posting of ``voter's responsibilities'' to the long-proscribed literacy tests and poll taxes that were designed to adversely affect minorities.
Some jurisdictions, perhaps disproportionately where minorities comprise majorities, use antiquated voting technologies that are unacceptably unreliable in recording the political choices of voters who exercise reasonable diligence in attempting to record their choices. But it is not a civil rights violation to say that such diligence is a civic duty.