Lifton: Assembly is Working to Improve Election Process

May 28, 2004

Elections are the lifeblood of our democracy, but they are meaningless without public trust. The mess in Florida during the 2000 presidential election showed just how important it is to have a functional voting system in place.

The Senate and Assembly recently reached a bipartisan agreement by working in a conference committee to reform New York State’s election process. But just days later the Senate Majority backed away.

To make voting more efficient and easier for New Yorkers, the Assembly created a plan to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002. HAVA is a federal program designed 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. New York has $220 million at stake. It’s vital that the Senate come back to the table and start working again.

Senate turnaround threatens HAVA

To take down barriers to voter participation, the Assembly’s HAVA reforms provide for more convenient voter identification, greater handicap accessibility and updated voting machines.

The plan contains a more inclusive list of acceptable forms of voter ID than the Senate wanted, but as The New York Times reported on the HAVA Conference Committee’s May 10 meeting, the Senate "abandoned their attempts to limit the list of acceptable forms of identification to the vague language of the federal law."

Instead, the Senate moved to accept the Assembly’s more inclusive list, which empowers local boards of elections to determine what additional IDs would be allowed. But just two days later, Senate members rejected the agreement and are once again insisting on an "exclusive" list of acceptable IDs that would disenfranchise voters. The Senate’s stunning turnaround now threatens New York’s ability to meet the federal HAVA mandate.

Making voting easier and more accessible

There are also other differences in the Assembly and Senate positions. To ensure some of our most vulnerable citizens have the opportunity to cast their vote, the Assembly bill requires one handicapped-accessible machine for each polling place, which includes audio prompt voting, sip-and-puff voting, and a hand-held recording device.

The Assembly also removes the three-minute voting time limit and replaces it with a prohibition on taking more time to vote than necessary, giving people with disabilities enough time to record a vote (A.8847).

The Senate bill does little to address convenience for the disabled (S.6207).

The Assembly is also committed to updating voting machines, including requiring the state Board of Elections to purchase machines and provide them to localities, where the Senate’s bill allows any machine that meets the Board of Election’s minimum standards.

The Assembly bill includes an education component to transition voters to the new machines, while the Senate makes no such provision.

Protecting the privacy of voters and the integrity of the electoral system

In many ways, the Assembly’s legislation is a much stronger plan, providing greater confidentiality of social security numbers and registration of victims of domestic violence, people with an order of protection and law enforcement officials. It also provides the voter access system required by HAVA so voters can see if their affidavit ballot was counted (A.8842). Again the Senate bill (S.6201) has no such provisions.

Finally, the Assembly bill provides that the state Board of Elections appoint members to a citizens’ advisory committee to make recommendations on machine criteria. The Senate bill has 11 members appointed by various means, mostly by members of just one political party — their own.

With elections quickly approaching, I urge the Senate to act on this important issue. The Assembly’s goal is that the federal HAVA guidelines are fairly and fully implemented so that all New York voters are given the opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

By modernizing and improving our electoral process, we can begin to improve voter confidence and encourage broader participation.