The New York Times
February 28, 2006
By MICHAEL COOPER
ALBANY, Feb. 27 — With the federal government threatening to sue New York State for failing to modernize its voting system, state officials said on Monday that they are trying to avoid a lawsuit by negotiating a stopgap approach that would leave the current system intact for this fall's elections but improve access for disabled voters.
Top state election officials now acknowledge that it is unlikely that many of the state's 62 counties will be able to upgrade their voting systems by the fall, when New Yorkers will elect a United States senator, a governor, an attorney general, a comptroller and all 212 members of the Legislature.
So the state has begun negotiations with the federal government to head off a lawsuit with a temporary solution that would improve access to the polls for disabled voters.
The Justice Department has threatened to sue, warning in a letter to state officials last month that New York had fallen "further behind" every other state in complying with the Help America Vote Act, which was passed after the 2000 presidential election.
The negotiations have been secretive and, it appears, tense.
"The Department of Justice has been telling us every day for the last three weeks that they're going to sue us tomorrow if we don't agree to the last version of the consent order," said Douglas A. Kellner, a co-chairman of the Board of Elections.
The state missed its Jan. 1 deadline for creating a database of registered voters and has yet to come up with statewide standards dictating what types of machines county election officials will be allowed to buy.
So far, New York has received $220 million from the federal government to overhaul its voting system, and the state could stand to lose some of that money if nothing happens.
On Monday, the board closed part of its meeting to the public, saying that members planned to discuss the proposed settlement with the federal government and that the Justice Department had requested secrecy. Asked the reason for the request for secrecy, Eric Holland, a department spokesman, declined to comment.
Mr. Kellner said the negotiations centered on the federal law's requirement that state voting systems be accessible to disabled voters. Since the counties will probably not have time to buy new systems by the fall, he said, the current proposal is for each county to ensure access for the disabled at each poll site.
Proposals under discussion involve machines that would print out ballots, which could then be marked, and a system that would permit disabled people to cast votes by phone.
Mr. Kellner said that he does not understand the need for secrecy, and that even if the state and the federal government agree on a settlement, he will not vote on it until a week after a draft of the order has been released to the public.
"So if they want to take the position that all the negotiations have to go on behind closed doors, then they have to realize that it's going to be another week before they're going to get me to vote yes," he said. "And if that's a problem, then they'll have to sue us. We don't want to be sued. We believe New York really is committed to implementing the Help America Vote Act."
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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