The (Very) Long Road to Election Reform

The (Very) Long Road to Election Reform

The events of the past 18 months have proven several things: overseas Americans have friends in Washington; collaboration is flourishing among the organizations serving Americans abroad; and many in Washington are deeply committed to improving our chances for fulfilling our most fundamental right - the right to vote.

In the wake of the 2000 elections, everyone realized things had to change, and overseas voters suddenly mattered. In May, 2001, a bipartisan election reform bill was introduced in the House by Congressman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and already, organizations representing Americans abroad were consulted as to its provisions. These included simplifying the hodgepodge of state rules on voting, ensuring timely transmission of absentee ballots, increasing the use of electronic transmission, eliminating notarization requirements that represent a real obstacle for overseas civilians, and providing for the collecting and publication of statistical information to help correct problems in the future. These provisions corresponded closely and not surprisingly to FAWCO's "wish list", drawn up by Kathy Webster.

The House bill was followed in July by a sister bill in the Senate, introduced by John D. Rockefeller Jr. (D-WV). 17 non-partisan organizations like FAWCO, ACA and AARO representing overseas American citizens, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) and a number of international American Chambers of Commerce, joined Democrats Abroad in endorsing the provisions of both bills and in October 2001, their letters went to Washington. That summer also, Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CT) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced S-565, an extremely comprehensive election reform bill… which made no mention whatsoever of overseas voters.

In November, Congressmen Bob Ney (R-OH) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) introduced H.R. 3295, the "Help America Vote Act", which took up many of the provisions of the Reynolds-Maloney bill and added the creation of a single state office, responsible for informing voters overseas and ultimately for administering the Uniformed and Overseas Civilians Absentee Voting Act (i.e. accepting registration and application for ballots, receiving and counting ballots, publishing post-election statistics).

FAWCO was asked to support the Dodd-McConnell bill but could not until it addressed the problems faced by overseas voters. I went to Washington in January 2002 to present Senate staffers with the voting position paper prepared by our organizations for the "Overseas Americans Week" we had had to postpone after September 11, showing how it corresponded to the Rockefeller bill and seeking bi-partisan support for a Rockefeller amendment to S-565. Voters in all of our organizations wrote their legislators with the same request. One day before the Senate vote, the Rockefeller amendment was added to S-565 by unanimous consent and on April 10, the bill was approved, 99-1.

This left us with two bills containing provisions beneficial to overseas voters but radically different in philosophy. When AARO, ACA, ALLAMO and FAWCO representatives joined members of the American Business Council of the Gulf Countries (ABCGC) in Washington for Overseas Americans Week in May, one major objective was to urge legislators to support "our" provisions when the two bills went to conference.

The joint House-Senate conference committee wrangled interminably over questions of states rights and voter fraud while overseas voters wrote and called anxiously to state our case. Finally, on October 4, a compromise was reached and the harmonized "Help America Vote Act of 2002" could return to House and Senate. "Our" provisions were intact and the period for which overseas voters can register was extended to 2 full federal election cycles, or four years! The bill was approved in the House on October 10 (357 to 48) and in the Senate on October 16 (92 to 2), and finally signed into law by President Bush exactly one week before the November elections.

The process from the first Reynolds-Maloney bill in May 2001 to the final October 2002 success is a stunning example of how our non-partisan organizations abroad can collaborate to impact legislation. The battle is far from over - funding has yet to be appropriated and some of "our" provisions have fallen by the wayside (like eliminating notarization requirements and allowing young Americans who have never lived in the United States to register at the voting address of their U.S. voter parent[s]). However, we can be thankful for the progress we will see and feel in the next federal elections, and for the coalition of committed overseas citizens we have really begun to forge!


Lucy Stensland Laederich, FAWCO Counselor and FAWCO U.S. Liaison

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