Be careful with election 'reform'

August 01, 2001 11:00 pm

Be careful with

election reform

Once every, oh, 50 or 100 years or so, the United States encounters a national election that is too close to call. When it happens, screams go out about election fraud and votes not being counted and all kinds of supposed problems with our election system. Some complaints and some fine-tuning might be warranted, but the problem isnt one that surfaces often enough to warrant wholesale changes in our system.

Do we need to declare a national holiday on election day to encourage more people to vote, perhaps by overlapping Veterans Day and election day as a national commission has suggested? Do we need a law that would prohibit national media from projecting winners until polls are closed across the country?

How far should we go in reacting to the questions that arose in the November presidential election?

The election was an aberration. Anything that would place limits on how the election is conducted or reported should be studied very carefully.

The National Commission on Federal Elections, a bipartisan group, Tuesday issued a report that was an outgrowth of the November election. Among the reforms the report suggested was a national election day holiday that would overlap with Veterans Day. It also suggested restoring voting rights to felons and allowing voters challenged by poll workers to cast provisional ballots. But the commission also reacted to the television networks missed projections by recommending they should voluntarily refrain from state-by-state calls. If necessary, Congress and the states should consider legislation, within First Amendment limits, to protect the integrity of the electoral process, the commissions report said.

Limits even if voluntary on the reporting of election results would run contrary to one of our most cherished constitutional guarantees the right of free speech and a free press. Although the framers of the Constitution and the First Amendment could not have envisioned how far and how fast technology would come, the amendment has stood the test of time.

Surely the networks learned from their miscues last November. America doesnt need laws that tell media outlets how to do their jobs. A uniform poll closing time would make more sense than laws prohibiting free expression.

Taking a look at all institutions from time to time makes sense. The November election reminded us that no system is perfect and that some fine-tuning might be necessary. If the feds can encourage states to upgrade and make certain their systems are working, the review will be well worth the effort. But Congress need not go so far as to tell states and the media how to do their jobs.

And as far as making election day a national holiday? Not if it means overlapping Veterans Day with election day. A day honoring veterans should not be mixed with politics.