The New York Times

May 12, 2005


The Machines of Politics, Well Greased



LET the games begin!


No, not the Olympics. Another kind of game in New York, which in some ways has higher stakes - the selection of 20,000 new voting machines for the state.


New York has lagged behind the whole country. Every state is overhauling its voting systems to conform with a new federal law enacted after the presidential election of 2000. This week, Albany finally made a move. It - punted.


Lawmakers decided to push a major decision down to the state's 57 counties and New York City. They will pick their voting machines, after the State Board of Elections certifies which machines meet federal standards.


"The fairest interpretation is, under enormous pressure from all sides, the State Legislature took the courageous position of kicking it to the localities," said Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


Because of legislative gridlock and little apparent leadership on this issue from Gov. George E. Pataki, this tentative move took years - and lawmakers have not yet enacted a bill setting guidelines for the machines, or determined the appropriate identification for legitimate voters. It hasn't even filled longstanding vacancies on the Board of Elections, which is supposed to be bipartisan but is Republican-dominated because of political maneuvering.


"Sometimes government works at a snail's pace," said State Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who is a co-chairman of a legislative conference committee on voting reform and a master of understatement. The senator said he considered decentralization preferable because communities have different needs. "We think people should have options."


His Democratic counterpart, Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright of Manhattan, disagreed. Democratic lawmakers wanted to be more prescriptive and detailed about the machines. "We have been holding out for a single system, for continuity, but it ain't going to happen with these folks," said Mr. Wright.


Some civic groups, troubled about the influence of well-connected lobbyists on Albany decision makers, are even more troubled about the prospect of fragmented influence. "We don't have well-heeled lobbyists with contracts all over governments at the county levels," said Rachel Leon, executive director of Common Cause New York, a nonprofit group that monitors state government. "This raises interesting questions, scary questions of who is controlling who, who knows who."


Not that such considerations are ever absent from state politics. Lobbyists, some more prominent than many of the lawmakers they are trying to influence, have long been working the halls of the Legislature and now are about to fan out across the state - those who haven't already.


Some are already busy at the local level, especially in New York City, which has 7,639 machines and wants to buy even more, 10,000, for spares and replacements.


"My people have met with leaders on both sides of the aisle on the merits of the machines," said Patricia Lynch, one of the busiest Albany lobbyists today. Ms. Lynch, who was a top aide to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver until the end of 2000, represents Sequoia Voting Systems, one of the voting machine companies contending for contracts throughout the state.


EVAN STAVISKY of the Parkside Group, which represents another voting machine company, Danaher Controls Inc., said he, too, had been talking to officials in New York City and elsewhere.


Parkside is a busy city lobbying firm. It has worked on the campaigns of more than a dozen City Council members, including the speaker, Gifford Miller. One of its partners is Harry Giannoulis, a member of the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission, and Mr. Stavisky is well connected in Albany, where his mother is State Senator Tobi Ann Stavisky, Democrat of Queens.


The other voting machine companies vying for state business have all hired well-known lobbyists: Liberty Election Systems is represented by one of the most established Republican lobbyists in Albany, James Featherstonhaugh; Election Systems and Software hired Davidoff & Malito, one of the state's largest lobbying firms with strong political roots in the city; VoteHere Inc. is represented by Mirram Global, whose partners include Roberto Ramirez, an influential political consultant and longtime adviser to Fernando Ferrer.


Any advice from Albany for the locals about to greet armies of lobbyists?


"Be careful," Assemblyman Wright said with a laugh. "Just be careful, because they will be a-coming. They'll come to your house if needs be."


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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