Money coming for voting machines

State isn't sure what it will buy with $153.4 million from federal government.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

By Erik Kriss

Albany bureau

 

The federal government is sending New York $153.4 million to help buy new voting machines even though state lawmakers still haven't agreed what kind of machines the state should have in place by next year's elections.

 

The money represents the balance of New York's federal aid under the 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, which requires new state voting systems by next year to avoid a repeat of Florida's fiasco in the 2000 presidential elections.

 

New York is the last state to get all of its federal money; only Guam is still waiting.

 

Even though New York has delayed the tough decision about a new voting system, HAVA requires only that states appropriate a 5 percent match and adopt an administrative complaint procedure to get all their federal aid.

 

New York did both at the end of March.

 

The 2005 state legislative session is scheduled to end June 23, and lawmakers say they're well aware that they need an agreement on new voting machines by then.

 

Local electionsofficials have said they need 18 months to implement whatever plan the state devises. The U.S. Justice Department could take action against New York if, as is virtually certain, new machines aren't in place by Jan. 1.

 

If new machines are still not in place by the first federal election of 2006 likely a fall primary New York is supposed to return its federal aid to the U.S. Treasury, according to Jeannie Layson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

 

HAVA requires that New York replace its lever voting machines with a system that allows disabled people to vote without assistance. State and local officials are debating the merits of electronic touch-screen machines vs. optical scan paper ballot readers.

 

State Assemblyman Keith Wright, D-Manhattan, who chairs the Election Law Committee, said New York will have "a big problem" if lawmakers don't pass a law creating a new voting system in the next two weeks. His Senate counterpart agreed.

"I am absolutely aware and extraordinarily sensitive to the fact that we need to do this before we leave Albany this session," said Sen. John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, chairman of the Senate Election Law Committee. "I am confident that we will get it done."

 

Wright and Flanagan have tentatively agreed to let county elections commissioners choose from whatever machines the state allows. But final agreement on the parameters of those machines has been elusive.

 

"They won't even come to the table," Wright said of the Senate's majority Republicans. "We've made numerous phone calls. My creditors know how to find me, and I hide from them."

 

"I'm certainly not hiding from anybody," Flanagan said