Promise Keeper?

As a consolation prize for losing the majority leader's post, Senate Republicans have given Trent Lott (R-Miss.) the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. The announcement has received little attention, but liberals should be elated. That's because the position wields a tremendous amount of power in the area of federal election law. And who better to occupy such a post than the senator who recently pledged to promote an agenda friendly to the interests of African Americans?

If, of course, Trent Lott has really changed.

In his now-infamous interview on Black Entertainment Television, Lott said: "This is an opportunity for me to do something about years of misbehavior. As majority leader, I can move an agenda that would have things that would be helpful to African Americans, and minorities of all kinds, and all Americans, but specifically aimed at showing African Americans that they have particular concerns and needs that we have to advance."

Lott may no longer be the Senate's majority leader, but his new post presents him with a perfect chance to keep his promise.

At the end of 2002, Congress passed and the president signed historic legislation that should improve our election system in numerous ways. But Congress has yet to appropriate 1 cent of the funding necessary for the states to carry out the mandates spelled out in the Help America Vote Act. Though the act calls for $3.8 billion in federal funding over the next few years, the incoming Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Ted Stevens, initially proposed allocating $50 million to the states and localities for election reform, according to The Washington Post. Now he is reportedly proposing $1.5 billion, but, in the melee that the current budget debate has become, it is still unclear how much money will end up going toward election reform.

Fortunately, Lott is now in a position to take a leadership role in encouraging Congress to provide the full amount of money due on the federal election-reform bill. The reason: The committee charged with overseeing implementation of the Help America Vote Act just happens to be the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which Lott now chairs.

From his perch on the committee, he is also in prime position to advance the notion that the failures of the current election system are squarely an issue of civil rights. In the 2000 election, The New York Times found that black precincts in Florida had more than three times as many rejected ballots as white precincts, even after taking into account income, education and ballot design. Similarly, a study by the House Committee on Government Reform found that voters in low-income, minority-heavy congressional districts throughout the country were three times more likely to have their votes for president discarded than those in richer, more white districts. And a study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that, of the 100 counties with the highest ballot-spoilage rates during the 2000 election, 67 had a black population greater than 12 percent.

Overt acts of vote suppression still occur frequently in this country. In December's Louisiana runoff, a flier was distributed in black neighborhoods that read: "Bad Weather? No problem! If the weather is uncomfortable on Election Day, remember you can wait and cast your ballot on Tuesday, December 10th." (The election was Saturday, Dec. 7). In Arkansas, poll monitors approached African-American voters as they stood in line, demanding to see identification and snapping photographs of them. In Maryland, a flier was posted in minority neighborhoods that read: "URGENT NOTICE. Come out to vote on November 6th" -- the day after election day. Just before the 2001 election in Passaic, N.J., Hispanic voters were sent postcards warning them about fraudulent voting and claiming that there would be armed law-enforcement officers at the polls.

Since the earliest days of the United States, voting rights has been a central issue, but the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s elevated its importance. And reforming the electoral system to ensure that every American is able to vote continues to be of paramount importance to those who care about civil rights today. The Help America Vote Act will make major improvements -- but only if the funding is actually there to make it happen.

Election reform needs a high profile advocate in Washington. And Trent Lott needs an opening to prove that, when it comes to civil rights, he really is a changed man. Here's the opportunity he's been waiting for.

Tova Wang served on the staff of the National Commission for Federal Election Reform. She is a program officer and special counsel at The Century Foundation.

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