The New York Times
January 12, 2006
By MICHAEL COOPER
ALBANY, Jan. 11 - The federal Justice Department has threatened to sue New York State over its failure to modernize its voting system, saying New York "is further behind" every other state in complying with new guidelines stemming from the 2000 presidential election dispute.
The state has yet to decide what kind of new voting machines it will certify, leaving many local elections boards in uncertainty as they try to modernize their voting systems in time for next fall's primary elections. And the state missed the Jan. 1 deadline for creating a statewide database of registered voters, as required by the federal Help America Vote Act.
New York is behind all other states and territories in deciding how to spend its share of $2.3 billion in federal aid to modernize voting machines and other elections technology. So far the state has received $220 million to replace its 20,000 aging voting machines, train local election officials to use the new machines, and create the voter database. The money is unspent and collecting interest, officials say.
A Justice Department letter told state officials this week that it had authorized a lawsuit against New York for failing to comply with the law. The letter said that the department hoped to settle the matter by negotiating a court order with the state instead going to court but that "we are prepared to file a complaint if the matter is not resolved expeditiously."
Wan J. Kim, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, wrote in the letter that "it is clear that New York is not close to approaching full H.A.V.A. compliance and, in our view, is further behind in that regard than any other state in the country." A copy of the letter was given to The New York Times by someone who believes the state has been too slow to overhaul its system.
New York's failure to address the issue is in part the result of gridlock in Albany, which took years to pass legislation to put the state into compliance. Some of the delay was caused because legislation to comply with the federal law was held up by a partisan squabble over appointments at the state's Board of Elections.
Last summer, Gov. George E. Pataki finally signed legislation that many voting rights advocates said did not go far enough. That law allows localities to choose what kind of voting machine to buy as long as they meet statewide standards. Civic groups complained that allowing the counties to choose different machines could make it difficult to establish uniform procedures to govern a statewide recount, which proved to be a major stumbling block in Florida during the disputed presidential election of 2000.
Lee K. Daghlian, a spokesman for the state's Board of Elections, confirmed that the board received the Justice Department letter on Tuesday. "We don't dispute that we're not in compliance," he said, adding that the state had been in contact with the Justice Department. "What we've given them is what we're doing, and what kind of process we're making. And we're quite behind."
The Board of Elections is still hearing public comments about what kind of standards to require for voting machines. Once it publishes its guidelines, voting machine manufacturers (and their legions of well-paid lobbyists) will scramble to try to get their machines approved and then to sell them to local elections boards. Some local officials say it is unlikely that they will be able to get the new machines up and running for the 2006 elections, when New Yorkers will choose a governor, a United States senator and 212 state lawmakers.
"Somewhere down the line we will have to advise the boards whether we think they're going to have time to get this done properly before the election," Mr. Daghlian said.
Mr. Daghlian said the state was going ahead with its plan to create a voter database and expected to model it on one being created by the state of Washington. He said the main cause of delay was the Legislature's failure to pass legislation in 2004.
Dan Seligson, the editor of a nonpartisan Web site, electionline.org, that tracks the compliance with the Help America Vote Act, said New York was "dead last nationally."
"I think that other states can demonstrate that they have made a good-faith effort to comply, but that they had difficulties with vendors, problems with machines," he said. "In New York, they can't claim that."
Some civic groups say they hope the state will be able to right itself.
"The governor and the Legislature dragged their feet for so many months, it put New York behind the eight-ball," said Miriam Kramer, the government policy analyst for the New York Public Interest Research Group. "Now is the time to urge the federal government for a waiver, so we can do it right, within an appropriate time frame, but not rushing, while maintaining an open and transparent process and enfranchising as many New Yorkers as possible."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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