April 25, 2005
Counties to the state: Make up your mind already
Local municipalities on edge with state stalling on voting machine decision
By CHRISTINE MARGIOTTA
County officials are accusing state legislators in Albany of dragging their feet on one last crucial requirement of the U.S. Help America Vote Act: which voting machines to buy.
"Counties are just sitting back frustrated with the lack of decision-making," said Bruce Ferguson, Salem town supervisor. "We have almost no viable information."
Warren and Washington counties are demanding a decision, which would free millions of federal dollars from state coffers for voting machine purchase reimbursements to counties.
But even if the Senate and Assembly decided today, some fear the federal government could yank the aid if counties fail to fully comply with the act by 2006.
"It is getting frustrating because the clock is ticking down, and we don't even have machines to preview let alone be able to go out and do voter education," said Mary Beth Casey, Warren County Republican elections commissioner. "If 2006 comes and the state hasn't acted on these bills, the localities still have to be compliant, but the federal money could be gone. That's going to be a very expensive proposition for the counties and towns."
Crafted in response to voting problems during the 2000 presidential election, the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, requires states replace all mechanical voting machines with electronic, handicap accessible models. HAVA also requires a paper backup for each vote and databases of registered voters in each state, among other mandates.
When HAVA was created in 2002, states had until 2004 to comply. New York state lagged behind, but got an extension from the federal government good until Jan. 1, 2006.
The state must replace all of its voting machines and educate voters, inspectors and custodians by that date.
"Heaven forbid if one of our U.S. senators has to leave office and we have to hold a special election," Casey said.
It is also unclear what the federal government will do if New York state doesn't comply with HAVA on time.
"Will they sue us and take the money they gave us? Chances are, if we're in the middle of coming into compliance they won't," said state Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian. "But they're not telling us."
Until the state decides on a machine, manufacturers can't start production. Though lead times vary, voting machine orders can take up to two years to complete, Daghlian said.
Voting Machine Service Center Inc. of Gerry, N.Y., which provides voting machines to Washington County, could not be reached for comment.
In Washington County alone, 20,000 voting machines -- some nearly 70 years old -- must be scrapped and replaced by January.
"We have to get this up and running for the next federal election in 2006," said Washington County Republican Elections Commissioner Donna English. "Our frustration is that we've got a lot of work to do between now and then. They haven't certified any machines at all, meaning we've got 20,000 machines that have to be built and we've got a short amount of time to do it in."
Saratoga County, meanwhile, is much less worried.
"There's nothing we can do until everything is enacted," said Republican Elections Commissioner Diane Wade. "Until that point in time, it's status quo in this office. I'm not going to get upset about it. We're just biding our time."
Wade said she and Democratic Elections Commissioner Bill Fruci support centralization, which puts municipalities' voting machines and election processes under the county's control.
Only three counties and New York City have centralized control of elections, said New York State Election Commissioners' Association President Elizabeth Cree in a March 16 letter to county Boards of Elections.
Warren County has resolved to centralize its elections to streamline its compliance process.
"I think the frustration is coming from counties that have not centralized," Casey said.
Washington County decided to wait and see what the state Board of Elections and Legislature decides regarding voting machines before centralizing.
The county's government operations committee passed last Wednesday a resolution supporting the purchase of voting machines that electronically scan a voter's paper ballot. The ballot is then dropped into a sealed box as a back-up record of the vote. Ferguson said these machines not only take up much less space than the larger touch-screen voting machines, they also cost less.
Federal money will cover 95 percent of the cost of new voting machines, while states must match the remaining 5 percent. The Senate and Assembly both passed a bill that will put $7.7 million toward covering the 5 percent match, Daghlian said.
The Assembly passed a data registration bill April 20 to create a statewide list of registered voters, Daghlian said.
"This new round of legislation will allow the Feds to send about $160 million more," -- bringing the state's total amount of HAVA compliance federal aid to $220 million, he said.
The state has been sitting on about $66 million of that aid for the past two years, he said.
Though the state Senate and Assembly are making progress, Daghlian was less than optimistic about making the deadline.
"Can we do it? I suppose if they (the Senate and Assembly) were to act now, but I can't guarantee that. Nobody can," he said.
Sharing that sentiment, English is bracing herself for a long haul in Washington County.
"Hopefully there won't be too many sleepless nights," she said.
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