New York Is Sued by U.S. on Delay of Vote System
By MICHAEL COOPER
Published: March 2, 2006, NYT
ALBANY, March 1 — The Justice Department sued New York State on Wednesday for failing to overhaul its election system and replace its aging voting machines. It is the first lawsuit the federal government has filed to force a state to comply with the voting guidelines enacted by Congress after the 2000 election debacle.
The new federal guidelines were designed to prevent the kind of electoral chaos that marred the 2000 presidential election in Florida, and to make casting ballots easier for disabled voters. But New York State's efforts to modernize its election system have fallen far behind the rest of the nation, delayed by Albany's chronic gridlock and partisan bickering.
New York was supposed to create a statewide database of registered voters by Jan. 1 to make it easier to register and to detect fraud. It has not even come close to doing so, the lawsuit contends.
And while New York has accepted more than $49 million in federal aid to replace its creaky mechanical voting machines by this fall's elections, it has yet to tell localities what kinds of new voting machines will be acceptable. So most counties say it will be impossible to buy new machines and train poll workers in time.
The lawsuit calls on the court to give the state 30 days to develop a plan for fully complying with the law in time for the fall elections. At this late date, though, it is doubtful that the state will be able to do so. State officials, who do not dispute that they have failed to comply, say that they hope to reach a settlement that sets out several stopgap compliance measures.
New York — which has received more than $221 million in federal funds so far to overhaul its voting system — could stand to lose some or all of the $49 million it has received for new voting machines, according to the lawsuit, which was filed here Wednesday in United States District Court for the Northern District of New York.
Other states — including Connecticut, Pennsylvania, California and Ohio — have struggled to carry out some provisions of the federal law, the Help America Vote Act. But election-reform advocates and the Justice Department say New York ranks dead last when it comes to complying with it.
In January, Wan J. Kim, the assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, wrote in a letter to the state that "it is clear that New York is not close to approaching full H.A.V.A. compliance and, in our view, is further behind in that regard than any other state in the country."
Civic groups have long warned that New York's aging election machines are an accident waiting to happen. During the last three mayoral elections in New York City, there has been confusion over the vote tallies in either primaries or runoff elections.
The suit was a stinging rebuke to the state and once again highlighted Albany's failure to address pressing state issues, like its two-decade-long failure to pass a state budget on time or its unwillingness to comply with a court decision ordering more state aid to New York City schools.
The Justice Department noted in a news release on Wednesday that "states had nearly three years to comply with the provisions enforced under today's lawsuit" and said that New York "was not close to compliance" with the federal law. No other state has been sued for failing to comply with the law, but Justice Department officials say that they are having discussions with some other states about their voting plans.
The state and the Justice Department have been negotiating for weeks to try to avoid a lawsuit, and state officials said that they expect those talks to continue. "We've engaged in extensive negotiations and, despite the lawsuit, we are hopeful an agreement can be reached to resolve this matter," said Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, which is defending the state.
Recent negotiations have centered on settling the suit with a consent decree that would create a stopgap measure for this fall's elections, when New Yorkers will choose a United States senator, a governor, an attorney general, a comptroller and all 212 state lawmakers.
The measure, which elections officials call "Plan B," would allow the old mechanical voting machines to be used again this fall, while making options available for disabled voters at each polling site. The alternatives could involve machines that would print ballots, which could then be marked, and a system for disabled people to cast votes by phone.
The efforts to modernize the system have proceeded at a glacial pace, even with the infusion of federal money. The State Legislature dragged its feet on passing a state law to overhaul the election system because the issue became tied up with a partisan squabble over appointments at the state's Board of Elections.
The law that it passed and that Gov. George E. Pataki finally signed last summer left many of the biggest issues unresolved. It was left to the counties to decide what brand of voting machines to buy, and to the State Board of Elections to set the standards telling them which types of voting machines will be acceptable.
The board has yet to set the standards, and localities, including New York City, have complained that the most recent proposals are unacceptable.
Election officials say that they plan to model their statewide voter database — which was supposed to be set up by Jan. 1 — on a system used by the State of Washington.
The lawsuit notes that the state has yet to publish the rules governing how the database should be compiled. Nor has it begun seeking contractors to create the list, or established the technical requirements for the list.
Robert Brehm, a spokesman for the Board of Elections, said that the board believes it can have an interim voter database up and running by July or August, and have the final database ready in the beginning of 2007.
Civic groups, which have complained for years that New York was moving too slowly, are now concerned that the federal lawsuit will rush the state into adopting a flawed voting system. "The rotten H.A.V.A. implementation process on the state level shouldn't be mirrored by a rotten judicial enforcement process at the federal level trying to impose a solution on New York," said Neal Rosenstein, the government coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Copyright 2006The New York Times Company