Thursday, July 1, 1999

Voter registration
needs restrictions

Bullet The issue: Three aliens may be deported for voting illegally.
Bullet Our view: The violations indicate a need to strengthen requirements for voter registration.

THE fact that three aliens are facing deportation and three others are under investigation for voting illegally in Hawaii should prompt officials to delve deeper into the problem. All of the cases were discovered during routine interviews of persons applying for naturalization.

In each case, the person seeking citizenship was asked whether he or she had voted in a U.S. election, and responded affirmatively. This suggests that the respondents were not aware that they were breaking the law. How many more aliens are out there doing the same thing, innocently or otherwise?

Donald Radcliffe, district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, said it did not appear that the six were part of a concerted effort to encourage aliens to vote. But it is conceivable that such attempts have been made.

Over at the state Elections Office, a spokeswoman for Chief Elections Officer Dwayne Yoshina said he was not aware of the illegal voting cases, but added that the problems turned up by the INS aren't widespread. She added the startling remark that they show "the system works."

No one really knows how widespread the problem is and whether the system is preventing ineligible people from voting. If the government is relying on people admitting they broke the law when they are interviewed for naturalization, a lot of people could go undetected.

What we do know is that it is too easy to register fraudulently to vote. Registration requirements should include a personal appearance before the registrar and proof of citizenship.

In addition, the government should make greater efforts to warn people that it is a crime for noncitizens to vote.

Governor Cayetano said he doesn't think stricter voter registration procedures are needed, but the evidence suggests otherwise. There would be complaints that such measures would discourage people from voting, but people who appreciate the right to vote shouldn't mind showing proof that they are eligible.

Discrepancies in the count in last year's elections as a result of malfunctioning of voting machines shook public confidence in the system and prompted a statewide recount. The disclosure that ineligible people voted is another blow to confidence.

The integrity of the ballot is at stake. That should be worth a bit of inconvenience in voter registration.


Independent counsel

Bullet The issue: The independent counsel law has expired.
Bullet Our view: Congress is in no mood to renew the law but may decide at a later point to consider restoring it with added restraints on the counsels' operations.

FEW are mourning the death of the independent counsel law, enacted 21 years ago to provide for special prosecutors in cases posing conflicts of interest for the Justice Department. In its absence, the attorney general will appoint special prosecutors to handle such cases, reverting to the previous system. The current attorney general, Janet Reno, and her successors must be sensitive to the consequences of abusing that system.

It was such abuse that was responsible for enactment of the law creating the independent counsel, to be appointed by a panel of judges.

When President Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox as special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal, the public was outraged. Leon Jaworski, Cox's replacement, carried on the investigation that Cox had begun, resulting in Nixon's resignation to avoid impeachment.

Congress had good reason to create a system aimed at avoiding a repeat of the Cox debacle. The rationale that allegations of misdeeds by high officials should be investigated by independent prosecutors was sound.

The problem was that the counsels' independence became subject to criticism as freedom from accountability -- particularly Kenneth Starr's aggressiveness in pursuing allegations beginning with Whitewater and ending with Monica Lewinsky. The refusal of the Senate to remove President Clinton from office on the basis of Starr's findings was a blow to the law as well as to Starr's investigation.

The independent counsel law was unpopular with the Republicans before the Democrats turned against it. Just as Democrats were critical of Starr, Republicans criticized Lawrence Walsh's investigation of the Iran-Contra scandal.

President George Bush cut Walsh's work short in 1992 by issuing pardons for former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and five other officials.

The absence of the independent counsel law will not eliminate the need for high officials to maintain public confidence. An attorney general's bias in appointing -- or failing to appoint -- special prosecutors, or a president's interference in the pro-cess, would invite public wrath.

However, a case can be made for reviving the independent counsel law while eliminating its most obvious defects. Such a bill has already been introduced in the Senate under bipartisan sponsorship. It would curtail the independent counsel's investigative powers and require greater accountability.

Among other provisions, the bill would reduce the number of positions covered by the law from roughly 200 to the president, the vice president, cabinet members and the White House chief of staff. It would prohibit the expansion of an independent counsel's jurisdiction to matters unrelated to the initial investigation and would limit investigations to two years, with one-year extensions for good cause.

After the sour experience with the Starr investigation, Congress and the nation are understandably in no mood to renew the independent counsel law. But after a period of reflection, the lawmakers may decide that an improved law would be preferable to reverting to the old system, which produced the Cox firing. It's worth another look.

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John M. Flanagan, Editor & Publisher

David Shapiro, Managing Editor

Diane Yukihiro Chang, Senior Editor & Editorial Page Editor

Frank Bridgewater & Michael Rovner, Assistant Managing Editors

A.A. Smyser, Contributing Editor

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