Will New York be the Florida of Election 2008?

Loujane Johns

Yates County Election Commissioners Pam Welker (Rep.) and Bob Brechko (Dem.) attended a special meeting of the Election Commissioner’s Association on Dec. 5 in Syracuse. 

The group met to discuss concerns about how the state’s non-compliance with the HAVA (Help America Vote Act) would effect the 2008 elections.  Commissioners fear the New York State Presidential Election could cause the state to be labeled the “Florida” of 2008, referring to the 2004 voting machine problems in the Sunshine State.

 The organization unanimously agreed to send a “Amicus Curiae” to the Justice Department intended to help Federal Judge Gary L. Sharpe make a decision when he heard the case of a lawsuit brought by the Department of Justice against the State of New York for failure to implement HAVA. Such a brief can be filed by someone who is not a party in the case, but wants to provide information or relate how the case may effect people not named in the case.

 Sharpe heard the case on Dec. 19 and gave the state a very brief extension.  He set Jan. 4 as the date the NYS Board of Elections must present a timeline of how they plan to proceed to get the state in compliance.  Sharpe reminded members of the New York State Board of Elections they could be held in contempt of court. The board has already had 18 months of non-compliance.

Brechko said the local commissioners wanted to be heard.  He and Welker have sent letters to Senators Schumer and Clinton, asking for help on getting the voting machine problem solved.  He said no replies have been received.

 In 2002 the federal government enacted a package of reforms to ensure meaningful access for all voters. In 2006 NYS was sued by the federal government for not meeting the compliance deadline.  All voting systems were to be in place by Jan. 1, 2006 in every state. The major hold up in the state revolves around the state getting machines certified. Devices were tested throughout the state last year, but no decision has been made on which system will be approved.  Brechko said a company that was hired recently lost their certification and a new company had to be hired. “This put the process another month behind,” he said.

 In July Gov.Eliot Spitzer signed a law, which removed the deadline to replace the lever system in September and now requires each county to provide at least one ballot marking device.  This action took counties through the primary.

 Brechko said both the House and Senate are taking another look at the scanning devices, but even if a decision is reached by the end of this month, it could be too late for the November election.  Companies manufacturing the machines need a lead time to make the over 20,000 machines required to supply the state. When the county does get the machines, they must be tested when delivery is accepted.

 The state has developed a core curriculum for 124,000 inspectors and county election employees.  A disabilities advocacy group helped model a “Disability Etiquette Program.”  Brechko said this may necessitate hiring new election workers, since some who have worked the polls for many years may not be comfortable with the new system. 

 The local commissioners are in favor of the scanning machine, but no machines can be purchased until the state certifies them.  At this time the commissioners are hoping the lever machines can be used for one more election.

ECA President Norman Green issued a statement on behalf of the commissioners on Nov. 19.  “The election professionals at each county board in New York State are committed to a full HAVA compliance.  However, we will not stand idly and allow for any melt down of voting in 2008.  Our group will remain strong and vigilant in our duties and will honor our oath to obey the laws of New York State and the United States of America.  I can not express how serious the potential financial and electoral consequences are for the counties in New York State,” said Green.  “This is serious.” 

 Welker said the state and federal government have not taken the problem seriously.  She said the county has been budgeting for the new machines each year.  She gave $186,000 as a “ball park” figure on the costs of new voting machines for Yates.

 The goal of the election commissioners is to have the votes of 11 million registered voters in New York counted - correctly.