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The Post-Standard

 

Albany dithering away $220M

 

N.Y. only state not to pass voting machine law; federal aid just sits there

Sunday, February 20, 2005

 

By Delen Goldberg

Staff writer

 

Indecision in Albany may cost cities, towns and villages across the state about $220 million in federal money earmarked to replace out-of-date voting machines.

 

Under the Help America Vote Act, new electronic machines must be in place by the November 2006 elections.

 

But elections officials said they need at least 18 months to replace all the voting machines in the state.

 

New York is the only state in the country that hasn't approved the legislation necessary to get started, said Kay Stimson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

 

Leaders of the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled Senate are blaming each other for the delay.

 

"Even if they passed the bills today, we wouldn't meet the deadline," said Lee Daghlian, director of public information for the state Board of Elections.

 

If the state loses out on the federal money, the cost of replacing punch-card and lever voting machines will fall to cities, towns and villages.

 

"The public will be the victims of the legislators' inaction," said William Scriber, Democratic commissioner for the Oswego County Board

 

of Elections. "We'll have to kiss off $200 million. And every (municipality) in every county in this state is going to be given one big budget increase in 2006 because of it."

 

Each machine can cost up to $8,000, depending on what type is purchased.

 

"We're very concerned," said Helen Kiggins, Republican commissioner for the Onondaga County Board of Elections. "This is all supposed to be in place by 2006, and we've got no direction from the state. Each day that passes makes it harder and harder."

 

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, after ballot problems plagued the 2000 presidential election. The legislation calls for new electronic voting machines with verifiable paper trials in all municipalities, as well as the creation of a statewide electronic voter database and improved polling places for people with disabilities.

 

The federal government made more than $2 billion available to states to make the changes. New York has received about $190 million so far - with more promised - but the money sits untouched in an account controlled by the state comptroller's office.

 

"The money's just been sitting here, but no one can use it because the legislators haven't passed any bills," Daghlian said. "We're anxious to get this done and make a move on things, but we can't make a move without that money."

 

Legislators in Albany have bickered for months about how to enact the voting changes. Members of the Assembly and state Senate can't agree on what type of machines to buy or who will take ownership of them.

 

"There's no uniformity in Albany," said Dennis P. Sedor, Democratic commissioner of the Cayuga County Board of Elections. "There's a lot of debate on which machines are better, which are most cost-effective. There are concerns about having verifiable paper trails and non-tamperable machines, where they will be stored, who will maintain them."

 

Spokespeople from the offices of Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said legislators have been working for several months to come to an agreement about HAVA legislation. Both houses have passed voting-reform bills, but the bills are different.

 

Legislators called for conference committees last year to work out the differences but found no middle ground. More committee meetings will be held in 2005.

 

"We feel it has to be worked out because a lot of federal funding is at stake," said Sisa Moyo, spokeswoman for Silver. "And of course, time is of the essence."

 

Once state legislators decide which type of machines to use, the vendors will have to produce about 20,000 of them for New York - a process that can take up to a year, even with crews working three shifts a day. Those machines must be tested, packaged and delivered to thousands of municipalities across the state. Then, elections employees and citizens must be trained to use them.

 

"We were hoping to get the machines and be able to test them out on a smaller election, not a federal election, but I can't see that happening," said Laura P. Costello, Democratic commissioner for the Madison County Board of Elections. "Now we're just hoping that something happens quickly."

 

Scriber, who also serves as chair of the legislative committee of the state Election Commissioners Association, is not optimistic.

 

"I have no faith the 2006 election will work in New York state," he said. "In my opinion, we're going to have problems that make Ohio and Florida look like warm, sunny days. It's going to be fragmented and disjointed. It's impossible to roll out this type of new technology on a statewide scale in this time frame."

 

2005 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.

Copyright 2005 syracuse.com. All Rights Reserved.

 

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