We are fast running out of time to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), enacted by the federal government following Florida’s voting fiasco in 2000. New voting machines, accessible to all, must be in place by September 2006, or New York will lose over $200 million in federal funding to help buy the machines and train poll workers. The state and local officials who run our elections are justifiably worried that we are courting disaster. They believe it will take a year or more to decide upon and purchase new machines, as well as educate poll workers and the public about their use. I agree.
The Legislature has been working for many weeks in conference committees – open, public meetings with representatives from both houses and both parties – and has made progress in resolving a number of issues, including agreement on a voter complaint procedure (Chapter 23 of 2005) and the creation of a statewide database from the county lists (Chapter 24 of 2005). In some cases, there has only been verbal agreement on outstanding issues like a voter verifiable paper trail and centralizing elections at the county level.
Last week, however, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno refused to authorize the continuation of conference committees, effectively ending discussions. It’s of paramount importance that Senator Bruno restart talks in order to resolve differences and to get the verbal agreements drafted into bill form.
In fact, the Senate rescinded an agreement established and implemented in the past election cycle that allowed for about 20 different forms of identification. The Assembly and Senate also have crucial differences over the issue of verification of identity when people register to vote. HAVA requires prospective voters to provide either the last four digits of their Social Security number or their driver license identification number. If they don’t have either, or if there is a mismatch with the state DMV list, the Assembly’s position is that the prospective voter should be assigned a unique ID number and go on the rolls. Board of Election (BOE) workers could then continue checking further to correct errors and do everything feasible to get people entered on the voter rolls.
The Senate is saying that without either of those two numbers, they can’t complete an exact match with the DMV list and the person shouldn’t be entered on the rolls. If there is a mismatch of only one digit or a difference in the name from the DMV list, the person shouldn’t be entered on the voter rolls. A written notice would go out to that person with no further checking. The problem with the Senate’s logic is that thousands of people register in the last weeks before an election, and there is great concern that local boards of elections wouldn’t be able to get timely notice to people so that corrections could be made.
Studies show that 95 percent of mismatches are caused not by voter fraud but by clerical error. Women would be most affected because they often change their names when they marry or divorce. While this may seem like a small technicality, in a state with 18 million people, the Senate’s current stance could easily keep thousands of eligible voters off the rolls.
And while there is a verbal agreement on accessibility of machines to the disabled, only the Assembly has a bill written to accomplish that (A.5-A, passed Assembly 1/25/05). There is no two-house bill yet. On the issue of accessibility to the polling place itself, there is not even a verbal agreement. The Senate has been silent on this critical issue, even though the US Department of Justice has said there will be no more waivers on poll site accessibility and we will likely lose federal money if poll sites aren’t 100 percent accessible.
Last, but far from least, there is no agreement about how the $200 million in federal money will be allocated statewide.
We often lament the lack of participation in elections by our citizens – people who don’t register to vote even though they are eligible and registered voters not turning out to vote in elections. A recent report identified New York as having one of the lowest voter turn-out rates in the country. That is an embarrassment and shame for the Empire State. We should be doing everything possible to register voters and encouraging them to vote rather than putting up obstacles to their registering and voting as the Senate proposals would too often do. Let us use this important moment in our state’s history to get it right – that is, enfranchising all of our citizens and truly helping them to vote. I urge the Senate to join the Assembly in creating a system that is open and accessible to all.