State passes voting machine bill

Thursday, June 23, 2005



Times Staff Writer,


GENEVA — Those attending the 90th annual state Election Commissioners’ Association conference in Geneva Wednesday were relieved to learn that legislation enabling state officials to comply with the Help America Vote Act finally passed.


Election Commissioner President Elizabeth Cree, the Tompkins County Republican commissioner, said yesterday in Geneva that time had become critical for the legislation’s passage, and that if state lawmakers didn’t agree on a deal soon, they could have lost millions of dollars in federal funding for new electronic voting machines.


HAVA is mandating that all municipalities switch from the old mechanical voting machines to the high-tech ones by the Nov. 2006 election. New York was the last of the 50 states to create a compliance package of this nature.


HAVA emerged following the disputed 2000 presidential race in which lawyers and the courts spent weeks arguing over “hanging chads” and other issues before the U.S. Supreme Court ended the battle. The new machinery is meant to replace lever-action equipment that has been in use in most parts of New York state for much of the last century. The mechanical technology was first demonstrated in Lockport, near Buffalo, in 1892 and lever-action machines quickly became the national standard.


HAVA was designed to bring New York and other states into the modern age of voting technology with its ATM-like, touch-screen machines or optical-scan technology. New York will have to replace about 20,000 mechanical voting machines.


At an electronic voting machine demonstration Tuesday in Seneca Falls, Romulus Town Supervisor David Kaiser said he doesn’t think the federal government should mandate the switch from mechanical to electronic voting machines.


“Personally, I feel our old mechanical machines did the job perfectly well,” Kaiser said, adding that, if it were up to him, other states should have been asked to adopt lever machines similar to those used in this state.


Cree added that a lesser-known component of the legislation will help centralize the voting process. Previously each local municipality, such as towns, villages and cities, took care of their own machines, Cree explained, noting that the new legislation will place that control in county hands.


“For years we’ve been lobbying for that. This is huge,” Cree said, noting that centralization will enable each county to store its machines in a single location, as well as standardize pay for workers who facilitate annual elections.


County officials also will be responsible for determining which type of electronic voting machine to buy.


“It’s been a long process ... but it’s a good compromise,” said state Senate Elections Committee Chairman John Flanagan, a Suffolk County Republican.


While New York state has already received more than $220 million in federal funds to upgrade its election system, state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has warned that the partisan battle in New York has dragged on so long that some localities may not be able to meet the federal mandate to have all new machines in place for next year’s elections.


Silver said the delay could mean New York will have to return some of the federal money, but state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Rensselaer County Republican, said he does not believe New York will have to give any of the money back.


Flanagan said that to be on the safe side, “every county should act swiftly. No one should take anything for granted.”


Flanagan’s counterpart in the Assembly, Manhattan Democrat Keith Wright, agreed with Flanagan’s assessment and said the possible loss of federal funds was “a very valid concern.”


“New York City has been knocking on my door for the past year” seeking final action, Wright said.


Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission said if New York state fails to replace all its lever-action machines in time for the November 2006 election, it would face refund demands for a portion of the $49.6 million sent to it specifically to meet that HAVA requirement.


Whatever happens with the federal money, the New York legislation allows each county and New York City to determine what kind of new voting machine — ATM-style or optical scan — it will buy. The machines will be required to produce a paper record of each vote cast that will be available to election officials if there are disputes about the voting.


Part of the battle in New York was over whether the state should settle on one machine, or at least one technology. In the end, it decided to leave that to individual counties. There was also a battle over what sort of identification would be required for new voter registration.


And there were some seemingly more mundane and yet politically sensitive issues that held up agreement, such as how the state Board of Elections should be managed on a day-to-day basis. In the end, the Senate’s Republican majority and the Assembly’s Democratic leadership decided to create co-executive directors for the board — one Republican and one Democrat.


The battle over new voting machine technology has been a gold mine for lobbyists in New York. A Common Cause report said that in just the final six months of last year, voting machine companies spent more than $355,000 seeking to influence lawmakers in Albany.


The decision to leave the decision on what sort of voting machines to buy to individual counties means lobbyists can continue to collect big retainers as the attention shifts to the local government level.


“It is likely to lead to a lobbyist feeding frenzy at the local level,” said frequent government critic Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


Horner is part of a coalition, that includes Common Cause, opposing the HAVA package in New York because, in part, it could create a “hodgepodge system” of voting machines.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Content © 2005 The Finger Lakes Times



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