Bush cautiously endorses election overhaul while Democrats challenge his commitment
WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush, who won the White House in a fiercely fought recount of Florida ballots, cautiously endorsed an election-reform report that seeks to make Election Day a federal holiday, restore voting rights to felons and curb the media’s rush to project winners.
Bush embraced only the general principles of the 105-page study headed by former Presidents Ford and Carter. His press secretary, casting the president as a reformer, voiced support for several but not all of the panel’s recommendations.
”Our democracy is really an inspiration to the world. Yet, the work of improving it is never finished,” Bush said Tuesday in a Rose Garden ceremony, a beaming Carter at his side.
Neither man mentioned Carter’s recent criticism of the president.
With some Democrats still questioning his tactics in the 36-day recount campaign, Bush has viewed the Carter-Ford report as an opportunity to show voters that he is committed to fair elections and reform. At the same time, senior Republicans privately fret that some of the changes would help increase turnout of traditionally Democratic voters.
Democrats questioned his commitment.
”As President Bush receives the commission’s report, we hope he will finally provide real leadership and support for comprehensive election reform legislation,” said Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert applauded the commission and Bush for providing Congress ”common sense principles regarding election reform.”
The 19-member commission asked Congress to make Election Day a federal holiday, perhaps by combining it with Veterans Day, and to adopt legislation simplifying absentee voting from overseas. Lawyers for Bush and Democrat Al Gore had wrangled over ballots from U.S. troops stationed abroad.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said the panel made a good argument for the national holiday but the president wanted to consult first with veterans.
Indeed, the proposal sparked immediate protests from veterans groups and some members of Congress.
”Election Day is Election Day. Veterans Day is Veterans Day,” said Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who chairs the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Privately, GOP strategists say an Election Day holiday would benefit Democrats in some states by giving union members more time to turn out voters. Bush’s strategists have cited an Election Day holiday in Michigan as one reason for Gore’s victory in the battleground state.
Carter, who recently said he found fault in almost everything Bush has done, chatted privately with the president before the ceremony. Carter, in a later interview with CNN, said his meeting with Bush was ”very harmonious.”
Asked how much of the commission’s recommendations Congress would enact, Carter told CNN, ”I think all of it. There has already been intense bipartisan debate on each of these major issues. And President Bush this morning in effect endorsed the entire report.”
In the Rose Garden, Bush shook Carter’s hand and patted him on the back.
”I do feel at home here,” Carter said.
Former House GOP leader Bob Michel stood in for Ford, who had a scheduling conflict.
In the report, states were asked to restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served full sentences. Bush backs the provision, aides said, noting that he signed legislation as governor of Texas moving up voting eligibility for felons.
The panel asked Congress to give states $1 billion to $2 billion in matching money to help update their election systems. To qualify, states would be expected to take several steps, including:
n Allow voters to correct ballot errors and make voting more accessible to the disabled.
– Adopt standards that define what constitutes a vote, a reference to the fight over dimpled chads and other ballot oddities in Florida.
– Permit voters to cast ballots even if their registration is in question, setting aside the ”provisional ballots” until after the election.
Many GOP strategists say they believe that Democratic voters are more likely than Republicans to cast improper ballots, thus Democratic politicians would benefit if ballot rules are loosened.
Bush did not take a position on the state proposals, though aides said he backs the provisional voting concept and other proposals that increase turnout.
A minority of the panel members wanted the report to go further and mandate standards for better elections – a step aides said Bush would have opposed.
The commission urged news organizations to refrain from projecting election winners until after polling places are closed in all 48 contiguous states. If they refuse, Congress should prohibit government agencies from disclosing vote totals until the voting is done, the commission said.
Media organizations declared Gore the winner of Florida, only to reverse themselves later Election Night. Bush praised the panel for addressing ”the overeagerness of the media.”
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