Feds weigh takeover of NY voting machine selection



November 7, 2007


ALBANY - A federal takeover of New York's process for selecting new voting machines to replace its decades-old lever equipment has been proposed by the U.S. Justice Department, which is frustrated by the state's continued noncompliance with election reforms adopted in 2002.


In a blistering 26-page motion filed in federal court here, Justice officials said the state Board of Elections had missed multiple deadlines for installing new voting machines. They were to be in use by Jan. 1, 2006.


New York is the only state in violation of the Help America Vote Act, which was adopted after the Florida balloting debacle in 2000. The law mandates that machines be accessible to the disabled and produce a paper trail for use in recounts. Lever machines can do neither.


New York officials, in court papers filed earlier, blamed their noncompliance on ever-changing equipment standards set by Washington and now stipulated by state law. Elsewhere, these standards were treated as voluntary and no voting machines meet all of them.


"If defendants are unable and/or unwilling to make immediate progress in meeting their obligations, the court may have to consider taking compliance out of the hands of the state and placing it in the hands of others," Brian Heffernan of the Justice Department said Monday.


A spokesman for the state elections board declined to comment yesterday. The commissioners were to meet today. And a federal judge will hear arguments on Dec. 6 before ruling.


Heffernan called for the replacement of all lever voting machines by September, and more ballot-marking devices for the disabled in February's presidential primary.


He also said New York's more stringent requirements for new voting equipment should be dropped for now in favor of looser guidelines.


However, critics warned that such a move would undermine the integrity of elections. Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group said, "We shouldn't be forced to buy voting systems that gut the important protections that voters won in state law."


This isn't the first instance of the Justice Department proposing a federal takeover of election modernization. A special master was appointed last year to oversee Alabama's compliance with the Help America Vote Act, which concluded last month.


Long Island officials said there was too little time remaining before next year's presidential election to smoothly roll out new voting machines. They predicted chaos at the polls.


"It's bizarre and unworkable," said William T. Biamonte, the Democratic elections commissioner in Nassau County. "We need a minimum of 11 months working time to get it done, and New York City would probably need longer."


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