President signs Omnibus Appropriations Bill

President signs Omnibus Appropriations Bill, including Election Reform and Census Appropriations

The House of Representatives approved the Fiscal Year 2003 Omnibus Appropriations Bill (H.J.Res. 2) on February 13, by a vote of 338 - 83; the Senate cleared the measure, by a vote of 76 - 20, the same day. The bill was sent immediately to the President for his signature, and was signed on February 20.

One tiny part of the Omnibus Bill calls for $1.5 billion in funding for election reform. This falls short of the $2.165 billion which would have been full funding for FY 2003 but it is a start. It is not certain how the across-the-board cuts made in the projected appropriations will affect election reform but with the giant task ahead, it is to be hoped that the $1.5 billion will remain intact.

Many groups, including the national associations of Secretaries of State and Governors as well as civil rights groups and overseas Americans had urged Congress to appropriate the funds needed to begin implementation of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. 14 organizations of overseas Americans, joined by Republicans Abroad Europe and Democrats Abroad, endorsed a statement taken to Washington in January by FAWCO President Pam Dahlgren and U.S. Liaison Lucy Laederich, calling for this appropriation and for rapid appointment by President Bush of the members of the Election Assistance Commission which will make procedural decisions on implementation. They met there with representatives of the House Leadership, the Senate Appropriations and Budget Committees and with a number of moderate legislators whose support was crucial in the appropriations process. The next drive will most certainly be to call for the supplemental funding which can make up the shortfall and to ensure that FY 2004 funding is appropriated as stipulated in the HAVA.

One key provision in the HAVA which is directly dependent on funding is the constitution of statewide voter registration databases, needed to generate the statistics on voting from overseas that can help refine voting procedures in the future.

Also of interest to overseas Americans is $554.5 million in new budget authority for the Census Bureau, plus $41.8 million in unspent funds from last year, for a total approved operating level of $596.3 million, $150.8 million below the Administration's request for FY03.

The immediate project that concerns Americans abroad is the Census Bureau's plan to evaluate the feasibility of extending the Decennial Census enumeration to private overseas citizens in addition to the federally affiliated already counted. The Bureau will carry out a test count in 2004 in three countries, France, Kuwait and Mexico. The plan is for U.S. citizens living in the three countries to request that a questionnaire be mailed to their overseas address or to pick up questionnaires at embassies and consulates or from partner organizations that serve Americans overseas. They may also respond to the census via the Internet.

Through the 2004 Overseas Enumeration Test, the Census Bureau says it "expects to gather information about the level of participation of Americans overseas, the quality of the data collected, the effectiveness of its overseas outreach and marketing campaigns and if there are any barriers to integrating an overseas enumeration with stateside enumeration processes in 2010."

The overseas enumeration is linked to voting in the minds of many overseas Americans because they hope to have Census statistics on their numbers used for the purpose of apportioning seats in the House of Representatives, making it reflect real numbers of voters more accurately than it does when the "private" overseas voting population is not considered (numbers of federal civilian employees and the U.S. military and their dependents abroad are used for apportionment). In this sense, the inclusion of overseas Americans in the Decennial count would therefore not only give the world a true picture of the global distribution of the American population, but also represent yet another hoped-for "election reform".

Lucy Stensland Laederich, U.S. Liaison

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