From the NYS Assembly • Sheldon Silver, Speaker
Keith Wright • Chair, Election Law Committee
RoAnn Destito • Chair, Government Operations Committee
New York’s antiquated voting system needs an overhaul
Florida’s dysfunctional voting system took center stage during the November 2000 presidential elections and ultimately led to a new federal law to overhaul the nation’s voting standards. Voting is the very essence of our democracy and like other states, New York is in the process of improving the way we perform this fundamental right.
Our democracy relies too heavily on antiquated procedures and equipment. In fact, the two companies that manufactured the polling machines that New York has used for the last 60 years have stopped making them and now even replacement parts are scarce.
Ongoing confusion at the polls has left voters disheartened and led to a steady decline in voter participation. Voters have shown frustration with how and where to register, what identification is needed, how to operate aging lever machines, and ultimately whether their vote will be recorded and counted correctly. We must streamline the voting process and restore voters’ confidence in the system.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) is a federal law that gives New York that opportunity by providing aid to modernize the election process. Congress gave each state the freedom to create a plan that will prepare them for the overhaul as long as certain guidelines were met. Unfortunately, the 19 member state Task Force created to guide this reform was virtually hand-picked by the governor’s administration. In fact, the head of the state Board of Elections was passed over as chairman in favor of the governor’s personal choice.
The governor’s appointed chairman promised a draft to Task Force members by May 1, 2003, but didn’t send it until a month later. After careful review, many members of the Task Force deemed the plan short-sighted, leaving our state unprepared for this important restructuring. Furthermore, some members believed that the plan inappropriately implied that all members materially participated in the preparation and content of the plan.
Task Force’s plan lacks specific detail on how to bring 21st century technology to voters
HAVA is supposed to help states create a uniform, computerized voter registration list and assist states with establishing standardized, electronic voting machines. In order to receive federal funds, each state must design a plan, pass enabling legislation, and appropriate state funds. The process must also include citizen participation and public review.
Unfortunately, the Task Force’s plan does not provide an adequate level of detail on several key issues. Those missing portions of the plan mean that no one even has the opportunity to make meaningful suggestions about how to strengthen this vital piece of our democracy.
Plan to modernize voting machines and provide poll training remains unclear
The Task Force’s plan vaguely states that New York will undertake a statewide effort to replace lever voting machines currently used in all counties. But the plan offers no further detail of the machine selection process, how they will be phased in by January 1, 2006, or whether the new machines will be uniform statewide. The plan alludes to accommodating the needs of the disabled community, but falls short of ensuring statewide compliance and accessibility.
The plan also needs to address how poll workers and voters will be educated on using the new machines. After all, the first time many voters will see them will be during the next presidential election and that could be disastrous if voters don’t know what to expect.
Once a machine is decided on, the Task Force’s plan also needs to provide further information about how the voter outreach and education campaign will be implemented. There is no detail on how it will be developed, what the costs will be, or how the information will be distributed to the public. This campaign should be developed with the help of community organizations, state associations, election officials and literacy experts.
Questions raised about implementing a statewide voter registration list
The plan fails to describe how the centralized registered voter list will become available to county election officials. Other than the Department of Motor Vehicles, the plan does not list any databases that will be used to lessen the need for voter identification at the polls. This plan misses the opportunity to include detail on how these databases will be selected and how agreements for access can be reached.
Assembly’s plan fills gaps in Task Force’s draft
The Assembly addressed some of these problems by approving a package of legislation that ensures New York’s compliance with the Help America Vote Act. The package would:
We want a system that works for the voters. It’s time we end the confusion at polling places, increase voter turnout and empower all New Yorkers to participate in the process.
Elections are the lifeblood of our democracy, but they are meaningless without public trust. HAVA offers New York state the opportunity to increase voter participation and modernize the voting process. It’s the Task Force’s responsibility to provide the specific detail needed to bring 21st century technology to the public and ensure the integrity of our elections.
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