The biggest change at the polls in New York this year will be a requirement that first-time voters present identification at their polling place.
As I wrote last month, (A Broken System Stays Broken), this requirement is in response to the federal law, the Help American Vote Act, or HAVA, that Congress passed and the President signed in 2001, which aims at improving the election systems in every state in the nation in order to ensure against the kind of breakdown that occurred in Florida in the last presidential election.
That law requires many reforms:
• the elimination of punch and lever ballots
• a statewide voter database
• full accessibility for people with disabilities
• new voting machines?
• and identification requirements for first-time voters
But the states have until 2006 to be in compliance with the law, and none seem exactly to be rushing to implement it. In part, this is a result of recent controversies over new voting machines, which in some states have hinted at having as many (or different) problems as the ones they replaced. In part, states are treading cautiously; they do not want to do anything that would jeopardize what is the first money every allocated by the federal government for such voting reform. In part, in some states, it is a result of a dysfunctional legislature.
Like many other states, New York has requested a waiver from the federal government for certain provisions of the law, such as the database and the voting machines, until 2006.
The one provision of HAVA that New York State has implemented, is that part of the law that requires voters who have registered for the first time by mail after January 1, 2003 "[present] to the appropriate State or local election official a current and valid photo identification; orâ€š a copy of the current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck, or other government document that shows the name and address of the voter." In New York, this is new; it was not required that voters show identification at the polls for any reason in the past. Voters who fail to provide proper identification will be given the chance to vote through affidavit (paper) ballot, but not on a machine.
Voters who registered by mail for the first time after January 1, 2003 will not be required to present identification at the polls if they submitted with their registration any of the required identification pieces just mentioned, or their driver's license number, or the last four digits of their social security number.
This specific provision in HAVA was controversial when it was introduced - especially in New York City. Given the demographics of the city, with its high population of immigrants, and a small population of drivers, many election rights advocates and civic organizations opposed this measure. In fact, the only two senators to vote against HAVA were the two senators from New York, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton.
However, New York will need to deal with this issue this year. New York City, admittedly, has been better than other parts of the state to clearly define "by-mail" registrants and how to process the applications. They have sent thousands of letters to registrants who have failed to provide either a drivers license or social security number and according to their databases, have received a large percentage of the information needed from those registrants.
Yet, civic and good-government organizations have been fighting for more clarity and a broad, statewide list of acceptable identifications at the polls. The State Board of Elections has generated a fairly good list of what will be considered acceptable identification, yet the problem is that local and county boards of elections will not be required to use the list. It must be written into legislation so that New Yorkers in Buffalo will not have different identification requirements than New Yorkers in Long Island.
Thus far, the Assembly has introduced a bill that includes the broad list the civic organizations are advocating. The Senate has not introduced such a detailed and broad list and this past March, the Assembly and the Senate had a hard time coming to an agreement on a voter id list. The stalemate seems to have come from a difference over the semantics; had the State Legislature agreed on a list, it would have been the first broad and clear list of acceptable ids in the country. Yet, like many other things, the Assembly and Senate left Albany without a compromise and left many wondering what would happen in September.
When the Legislature came back in August to negotiate the budget (the 20th late budget in a row), they also quietly met to discuss HAVA issues, specifically the identification issues at play this year. Yet, the same problems they had in March over semantics persisted. Instead, both houses passed a stop-gap bill that amounts to a reiteration of the vague HAVA language regarding identification, a law that will expire July 1, 2005.
What does this mean for New York? Precisely what election-reform advocates feared - the possibility of different standards. Earlier this year, NYPIRG and the Brennan Center did a survey of the county boards and found that answers to questions regarding identification requirements were vastly different across the state.
The legislature failed to give proper guidelines and guidance to election officials that would have made Election Day processes run smoother. Beyond all the other provisions of HAVA that have stalled in the legislature and might have jeopardized the federal money for election improvements, allowing Albany to play politics with our election system is unacceptable. And voters should remember that at the polls this year -- that is, if they can get to them.
Jillian Matundan is the Making Votes Count Project Director for Citizens Union Foundation, which also publishes Gotham Gazette.