The New York Times
March 1, 2006
By MICHAEL COOPER
ALBANY, March 1 — New York State, which will not make the deadline for replacing all its aging voting machines by next fall's elections, was sued Wednesday by the federal Justice Department, making it the first state to be sued for failing to meet new voting guidelines imposed by Congress in 2002.
The new federal guidelines were designed to prevent the kind of electoral chaos that marred the 2000 presidential election in Florida and to make voting easier for disabled voters. But New York State's efforts to modernize its election system have fallen behind the rest of the nation, delayed by government gridlock and partisanship.
New York was supposed to create a statewide database of registered voters by Jan. 1, but has not even come close to doing so, the lawsuit contends. And while New York has accepted more than $49 million in federal aid that is earmarked for the state to replace its old lever voting machines by this fall's elections, the state yet to come up with standards telling localities what kinds of new g machines will be acceptable. So it is impossible for most counties to buy new machines and train poll workers in time.
The state — which has received more than $221 million in federal funds to overhaul its voting system — could stand to lose some or all of the $49 million it received for new machines, according to the lawsuit, which was filed here Wednesday in United States District Court for the Northern District.
The Justice Department noted in a news release that "states had nearly three years to comply with the provisions enforced under today's lawsuit" and said that New York "was not close to compliance" with the federal law, which is called the Help America Vote Act. No other state has been sued for failing to comply with the law.
The state and the Justice Department have been negotiating for weeks to try to reach an agreement to avoid a lawsuit. In a letter sent to the state in January, Wan J. Kim, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, wrote 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."
State officials said that they are still negotiating with the federal government. "We've engaged in extensive negotiations and, despite the lawsuit, we are hopeful an agreement can be reached to resolve this matter," said Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General's office, which is defending the state.
Civic groups have long warned that New York's aging election machines are an accident waiting to happen. During the last three mayoral elections in New York City there has been confusion over the vote tallies in either primaries or run-offs.
But efforts to modernize the system have proceeded glacially, even with the infusion of federal money. A partisan squabble over appointments at the state Board of Elections stalled efforts by the Legislature to overhaul the election system. Then, when they finally passed a law last summer, lawmakers left many of the biggest issues unresolved: they left it up to the counties to decide what kind of voting machines to buy, and to the state Board of Elections to set the standards for which types of voting machines will be acceptable.
The Board of Elections has yet to set the standards, and localities, including New York City, have complained that the most recent drafts are unacceptable.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company
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