City may have to foot bill to update voting booths
By James DeWeese
If Albany fails to enact Congressionally mandated reforms to the state voting system by 2006, New York's state, county and city governments will be forced to pick up the multimillion-dollar tab to replace obsolete voting machines, a city task force said last week.
Spurred into action after the 2000 election debacle in Florida, the federal government passed a sweeping legislative package aimed at helping states modernize election procedures and machines and made almost $220 million available to New York state to replace obsolete lever and punch card voting machines.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 set a deadline of 2004 for the reforms. But after both houses of the state Legislature failed to reach a compromise on the reform legislation, millions of voters across Queens and the rest of the five boroughs cast their ballots in the 2004 presidential and local election on decades-old lever-activated machines.
State Sen. John Sabini (D-Jackson Heights) said lingering concerns over the soundness of new voting machine technology had slowed approval of the legislation needed to tap into the federal funds, some of which are already in state coffers waiting to be distributed.
"Every other state that has done it has sort of jumped, but sometimes the parachute didn't open," said Sabini, who last year was a member of the conference committee charged with ironing out differences between the Senate and Assembly. "California bought the machines and junked them."
Sabini said many legislators thought optical scanners that read pre-printed ballots filled out with a pen or a pencil might be a safer bet.
Still, he said, some disabled people could have difficulty using the machines. The federal legislation requires that each polling site have at least one handicapped-accessible voting device.
New York is the only state that has not enacted the necessary legislation to carry out the required reforms and purchase new voting machines, according to a report released by the Mayor's Election Modernization Task Force.
During the 2004 election, parts to repair the city's machines, manufactured by Shoup Voting Machine, were scavenged from other states, including Georgia, which already had phased them out.
The Empire State applied for a one-time extension after failing to meet the 2004 deadline.
But if state legislators fall short of a compromise ahead of the 2006 election season, New York taxpayers will end up paying for the federally mandated reforms themselves, the report said.
The city task force said failure to comply with the legislation could expose the state to federal lawsuits and threatened to provoke mass confusion as voters head to the polls in 2006.
"Every day that the Legislature delays, the costs and risk of complications in implementing a new voting system are greatly increased," the report's authors said.
Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.
©Times Ledger 2005
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