Election reform must include state's disabled



January 15, 2006


Governor Pataki's recent State of the State address discussed a wide range of topics, but the issue of election reform was conspicuously absent. This is because New York has been in violation of the full implementation deadline of the federal Help America Vote Act since Jan. 1.


New Yorkers with disabilities have the most to lose because of this. They still are being denied full access to voting machines, the ballot and polling places after more than 200 years in the history of our state and country.


At issue is HAVA's mandatory requirement to remove barriers and increase access so that citizens can vote "privately and independently," as further supported by Title II of the federal Americans with Disability Act of 1990 and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.


Modest estimates project that the state won't be able to meet this requirement until 2008. This is both unacceptable and another dismal example of how dysfunctional New York state government has become.


Other groups have expressed additional concerns about HAVA-related issues, including the types of voting machines that the state Board of Elections will certify for use, and the requirement for a paper trail for each voter. These issues must still be resolved.


Since our state government has yet to uphold its moral and legal obligations to fully implement HAVA, I suggest that the state should demonstrate an interim act of good faith by immediately establishing a new program for New Yorkers with disabilities.


The "Fundamental Right" state income tax break would give qualified enrollees a two-fifths break on their state income tax. Only a person enrolled in the program could take advantage of the tax break.


To qualify for the tax break, a person would have to:


Be a resident of and registered voter in New York state.


Have a disability, as defined under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.


Sign a sworn statement to verify that he or she cannot vote privately or independently at his or her designated polling site.


In return, participants in the program would agree not to file and pursue legal action related to their voting rights against New York state during the time that they are enrolled and take the tax break.


The tax break would end the year after the U.S. Department of Justice verifies that New Yorkers with disabilities can vote privately and independently, as specified under HAVA.


It must be understood that this program is an interim measure, not meant to replace or prolong providing New Yorkers with disabilities their fundamental rights to vote privately and independently as American citizens. The money the state saves from avoiding extensive litigation costs, fines, and awards would more than pay for the program.


In his State of the State address, the governor called for several new breaks, while stating, "We've led the nation in cutting taxes -- 81 cuts to 19 different state taxes."


He capped his speech by talking about how the new Freedom Tower in Manhattan will "transcend great challenges," similar to the way the dreams and aspirations of our forefathers led to "limitless hope, opportunity and freedom."


New Yorkers with disabilities have been waiting over two centuries to gain full access to their voting rights, which directly impacts their hopes, opportunities and freedoms. Time will tell if the governor extends his penchant for tax cuts to New Yorkers with disabilities, consistent with our forefathers' belief in "no taxation without representation."


All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.



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