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Star-Gazette (www.stargazette.com)

August 7, 2007

 

N.Y. wise to wait on upgrade for election systems

State has saved millions as other states have stumbled on poor choices.

 

By Cara Matthews

clmatthe@gannett.com

Star-Gazette Albany Bureau

 

ALBANY -- When it comes to spending federal money to modernize election systems, New York state has barely made a dent in its $220 million savings account, according to a report released by a federal agency.

 

New York spent 1.43 percent -- just $3.1 million -- of the $219.5 million it originally received from the federal government, the lowest percentage of any state, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. South Carolina, by contrast, spent a little more than its total allotment of 39.2 million.

 

States received a total of about $3 billion, and they have spent 60 percent of that, or $1.8 billion, the commission reported. The bulk of it -- 76 percent -- was used to buy or upgrade voting machines and implement statewide voter-registration databases. Expenditures are through September 2006 for some funds and December 2006 for others.

 

Why does New York appear so frugal? Lawmakers took a long time developing the state's companion laws to implement the Help America Vote Act. Missed deadlines for implementing the statute prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to sue. The state Board of Elections had trouble with its machine-testing authority and is in the process of choosing another, meaning replacements for decades-old lever machines are still far from reality.

 

"It has taken New York longer to go through the process, but that turned out to be the silver lining," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters.

 

All the delays mean New York has benefited from pitfalls experienced by other states, namely the acquisition of new election machines that were not secure enough and "compromised the integrity of the ballot," Bartoletti said. Some states have had to use their own money to replace such machines. New York has the highest standards of any state as far as testing and certifying new machines, she said.

 

"We haven't squandered the money. It's making interest and hopefully (with) the process we're now going through ... we will pick machines that protect the fundamental right to vote and have that vote counted accurately," Bartoletti said.

 

The Help America Vote Act was passed in the wake of the 2000 presidential elections, when it took more than a month to resolve disputes over vote counts and decide who had been elected. Its purpose is to modernize elections and make voting easier for people with disabilities.

 

New York has earned interest on its money by keeping it in the bank, so the current balance is $224.7 million.

 

Most of it -- $190 million or more -- will go toward the purchase of voting systems, said Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections. The agency is in the process of finalizing a contract with a new testing company, he said.

 

The funds spent so far have gone toward building a statewide database and providing grants to make county polling places accessible, he said.

 

Copyright 2007 Star-Gazette.