Voting machine deadline waived
Lawmakers give districts another year to replace aging lever system; funds threatened
By ELIZABETH BENJAMIN, Capitol bureau
First published: Tuesday, June 21, 2005
ALBANY -- State lawmakers reached a tentative deal Monday to give local boards of elections an extra year to replace their lever voting machines as required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, setting New York up for a possible loss of millions of dollars in federal funding.
Legislators and staffers familiar with negotiations on the plan say it would provide a waiver to HAVA's fall 2006 deadline for machine replacement, pushing it to fall 2007 as long as counties have at least one handicapped accessible machine per polling place.
But John Nowacki, a spokesman for the Justice Department, which is charged with enforcing HAVA, implied this interpretation of the act won't be acceptable to federal officials.
"The Department of Justice has no authority to grant states waivers of any of the deadlines contained in the Help America Vote Act," Nowacki said.
If any counties opt for the waiver New York is offering, and if the Department of Justice objects, the state might have to return some of the roughly $220 million in federal HAVA funds it has received.
Officials at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, which administers HAVA money, say states will have to return machine funding based on how many precincts have fully met the act's requirements. If half a state's precincts have fully replaced their machines, for example, then only half the money must go back to the federal government.
Of New York's $220 million, only $50 million is specifically earmarked for voting machines. Even though New York plans to use more of its HAVA money for voting machine replacement, that $50 million -- $18 million of which is for New York City -- might be the only sum in jeopardy.
The deal in the works Monday was largely designed to help New York City, where elections officials say they can't buy the 10,000 machines they need, test them and train some 30,000 poll workers and the public to use the new devices in time for next year's federal elections.
New York City Board of Elections Executive Director John Ravitz said he has been urging state lawmakers to agree on a phase-in plan for voting machines since 2003, which would have allowed ample time for New York City to meet the 2006 HAVA deadline. If the state had moved faster, he said, New York wouldn't be in this position now.
"We needed them a year ago, to be honest," said Ravitz, a former Republican assemblyman. "But now we have to deal with the cards we're dealt. We need them as early as possible in the beginning months of 2006."
New York was the last state to qualify for its second round of HAVA funding. In order to get the funding, state lawmakers had to finalize a complaint procedure for voters and agree on a 5 percent match of state funds to federal money. That didn't occur until the end of March.
Avoiding a chaotic 2006 election is a top priority for Democrats, particularly in Democrat-dominated New York City. Both state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who is running for governor in 2006, and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who is seeking re-election, support giving counties an extra year to buy new machines, a state Democratic Party source said.
Monday's tentative agreement on voting machines also would:
Allocate $190 million in federal HAVA funds to help counties buy new voting machines and distribute that money in proportion to the percentage of registered voters in each district.
Allow counties to buy either optical scan machines or direct recording electronic machines, which resemble the current machines but use a button rather than a lever, as long as they are certified by the state Board of Elections and comply with the state's full face ballot requirement.
To be certified, all machines must produce a voter verifiable paper trail.
State lawmakers were rushing to get the final HAVA bills into print by midnight Monday so they can meet the three-day aging requirement and be voted on before the legislative session ends without a message of necessity from Gov. George Pataki.
Bills representing bipartisan agreements announced last week on how voters' identities will be verified and on governance of the state Board of Elections were already in print Monday.
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2005, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.
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