In response to the troubling and controversial presidential election of 2000, Congress passed The Help America Vote Act of 2002, known as HAVA, which will significantly alter the way Americans vote.
The federal government is going to give $3.86 billion to state and local governments in order to make the way we vote in this country uniform and efficient -- to get rid of the pesky lever machines and replace them with machines that are accessible to people with disabilities; to create a state-wide voter database; to take steps to ensure against fraud and vote tampering.
So why were the only votes against the law in the United States Senate cast by Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, the two senators from New York?
They knew what they were doing.
The truth is, the law could affect New York City more than any other city in the country. But trying to make the changes the new federal law requires, given the current state election system, is like putting a brand new engine in a car with a dead battery.
To give a glimpse into the problem: The federal law requires that the "chief election officer" in each state head a task force to figure out how to implement the reforms.
But the New York State Board of Elections is an autonomous patronage mill, with all employees (from the executive director on down to temps) evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.
The executive director of this state board would naturally be considered the chief election officer of New York State. The executive director happens to be a nationally respected electoral expert, Thomas Wilkey. But he is a Democrat appointed by Mario Cuomo. The current governor, Republican George Pataki, decided not to appoint Wilkey as chief election officer, and instead gave that designation to the deputy director of the Board of Elections, Peter Kosinski, who is (will this surprise you?) a Republican.
That appointment, highly criticized, was just a sign of worse to come. The entire task force, as a recent Associated Press story put it, "is dominated by Republicans and representatives of the Pataki administration."
So far, the task force has met four times in Albany, and done little.
The last task force meeting focused on the requirement of the new law that voters who register by mail must show a form of identification. This requirement is probably the most controversial aspect of HAVA in New York, because the law designates a drivers' license or social security number as key forms of identification. Only about half of the residents in New York City have drivers' licenses, while upstate almost everybody does. In general, the ID requirement may disenfranchise the growing immigrant and youth electorate.
This was surely a major reason why the two U.S. Senators from New York voted against the act; they realized the challenges of implementing broad identification requirements in a city that holds eight million of the most diverse population in the nation.
These issues were brought up in the task force meeting and discussed. But none of the suggestions to alleviate this problem were voted on. No votes have been taken on anything.
There is only one more task force meeting scheduled, then (as Kosinski explained), the staff of the Board of Elections will be writing the report required by the federal law, before it is released to the public. Members of the task force asked whether or not they would be able to read the report and amend it and whether or not there would be changes made after public hearings were set. No time, Chairman Kosinski basically replied; the deadline for federal funds was the end of April and the report had to be finished by then. Then it would be up to the local boards of election to administer the changes.
And this is exactly why we should all be worried.
Luckily, public hearings by the Assembly and possibly the Senate are being scheduled, regardless of whether or not the task force holds them formally.
The only true way to ensure that all New Yorkers protect their right to vote and for their vote to count is to wage a campaign to fix the broken system. Since New York will be affected the most, it is imperative that we remind the task force and state legislators that the Help America Vote Act was created to make it easier for us to vote, not to make it easier for the Board of Elections to implement. It is sad and outrageous that HAVA is becoming yet another victim of Albany's dysfunction.
Jillian Matundan is the election reform associate for Citizens Union Foundation.
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