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The Help America Vote Act -- The Good News and Bad News For NYC


When the Senate passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 early in October, it was one of those good news, bad news situations.

The legislation had already been passed by a wide margin in the Republican-controlled House, and the Democratic-controlled Senate passed it 92 to 2. The President, a Republican, has pledged to sign it into law. So the bill will be born into law with no lack of bi-partisan parentage. And that's good news.

The Help American Vote Act includes $3.86 billion in federal aid over the next four years to state and local governments to help them improve and upgrade current voting methods. The law includes stipulations to ensure that registered voters who show up at polling places will be allowed to vote that day, even if their names do not appear on the voter registration rolls. There are several provisions to address voter fraud and keep voting rolls accurate. There are timetables to ensure that within four years, statewide voter registration systems will be computerized and linked to state agencies for issuing driver's licenses. There are plans in place to allow voters the chance to correct balloting errors before the ballots are officially cast.

It is a comprehensive, timely, sweeping set of reforms designed to ensure that every eligible voter has the chance to cast a vote, and that the vote will be counted accurately. As I said, good news.

But as is often the case, New York City finds itself in a unique set of circumstances. That voting reforms are needed here in the city is a fact that few in government or public policy would dispute. But the two votes against the legislation in the U.S. Senate were both from the New York delegation: those of Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Hillary Clinton.

The reasons any legislator has for casting a vote either for or against a given piece of legislation are complicated. It can be difficult to say with certainty that even two Senators from the same party and the same state had all the same reasons for casting the same votes.

But a recent report by the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, shows that the newly passed Help American Vote Act may not address every problem, particularly here in New York City.

In other words, the bad news.

The report looked at several campaigns that took place in 2001. It compared governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, and mayoral races in New York and Los Angeles. The report concluded that while voting technology was important, it was not as important as voter education, sufficient numbers of trained poll workers, and the availability of translators.

As an example, the report points to the fact that in New Jersey, there were more uncounted votes in 2001 than in 2000, even though the state upgraded its punch card ballot machines between the elections.

In New York City, the use of lever machines that constantly break down or otherwise malfunction was blamed for the city's tremendous numbers of lost, unmarked, or uncounted votes in the 2000 elections. Indeed, the number exceeded the lost votes cast in the rest of the nation combined. No one would argue against improving and modernizing the equipment. But just one year later, in 2001, the city had more complicated problems: lack of trained poll workers, lack of translators, and other problems resulting in barriers to non-English speaking voters.

This report may parallel some of the concerns that New York's two Senators had when they cast the only two voters against this otherwise widely popular legislation. Maybe they thought it would be a reminder that no matter how well intentioned or well-funded, any reform can be ineffective or even destructive if it is not carefully tested and monitored.

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B>The Help America Vote Act -- The Good News and Bad News For NYC

When the Senate passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 early in October, it was one of those good news, bad news situations.

The legislation had already been passed by a wide margin in the Republican-controlled House, and the Democratic-controlled Senate passed it 92 to 2. The President, a Republican, has pledged to sign it into law. So the bill will be born into law with no lack of bi-partisan parentage. And that's good news.

The Help American Vote Act includes $3.86 billion in federal aid over the next four years to state and local governments to help them improve and upgrade current voting methods. The law includes stipulations to ensure that registered voters who show up at polling places will be allowed to vote that day, even if their names do not appear on the voter registration rolls. There are several provisions to address voter fraud and keep voting rolls accurate. There are timetables to ensure that within four years, statewide voter registration systems will be computerized and linked to state agencies for issuing driver's licenses. There are plans in place to allow voters the chance to correct balloting errors before the ballots are officially cast.

It is a comprehensive, timely, sweeping set of reforms designed to ensure that every eligible voter has the chance to cast a vote, and that the vote will be counted accurately. As I said, good news.

But as is often the case, New York City finds itself in a unique set of circumstances. That voting reforms are needed here in the city is a fact that few in government or public policy would dispute. But the two votes against the legislation in the U.S. Senate were both from the New York delegation: those of Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Hillary Clinton.

The reasons any legislator has for casting a vote either for or against a given piece of legislation are complicated. It can be difficult to say with certainty that even two Senators from the same party and the same state had all the same reasons for casting the same votes.

But a recent report by the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, shows that the newly passed Help American Vote Act may not address every problem, particularly here in New York City.

In other words, the bad news.

The report looked at several campaigns that took place in 2001. It compared governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia, and mayoral races in New York and Los Angeles. The report concluded that while voting technology was important, it was not as important as voter education, sufficient numbers of trained poll workers, and the availability of translators.

As an example, the report points to the fact that in New Jersey, there were more uncounted votes in 2001 than in 2000, even though the state upgraded its punch card ballot machines between the elections.

In New York City, the use of lever machines that constantly break down or otherwise malfunction was blamed for the city's tremendous numbers of lost, unmarked, or uncounted votes in the 2000 elections. Indeed, the number exceeded the lost votes cast in the rest of the nation combined. No one would argue against improving and modernizing the equipment. But just one year later, in 2001, the city had more complicated problems: lack of trained poll workers, lack of translators, and other problems resulting in barriers to non-English speaking voters.

This report may parallel some of the concerns that New York's two Senators had when they cast the only two voters against this otherwise widely popular legislation. Maybe they thought it would be a reminder that no matter how well intentioned or well-funded, any reform can be ineffective or even destructive if it is not carefully tested and monitored.

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.

Election Special--The Transportation Bond Act


The biggest transportation issue in this fall's election is literally on the ballot -- the $3.8 billion Transportation Bond Act of 2000. The bond act's money is equally split between highway and transit projects. The transit money would contribute to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's newly minted construction program that includes to begin planning a Second Ave. subway, buy 1,100 new subway cars, rehab 64 subway stations and buy 1,200 clean-fuel buses.

The bond act raises a surprisingly diverse set of issues. No one disputes the need to improve the state's highways and transit systems. But there is much uneasiness over the MTA's construction plan, which covers the next five years. Many in the transportation community feel it relies too heavily on debt and future fare increases without enough money from state and city operating funds. They also are not sure what they are getting -- the list of projects in the memorandum of understanding signed by legislative leaders and the Governor contains only partial funding for many long-term projects. Fiscal conservatives oppose the bond act because it would further balloon the state's already sky-high debt.

What happens if the bond act passes? Defeat automatically reopens the MTA capital program. That would give Albany the opportunity to improve the financing plan. But what would emerge -- a better plan or even less "real" money?

Voters this fall are taking a chance either way they vote. Vote yes -- but not be sure what projects will actually be built or whether straphangers will pick up most of the tab. Vote no -- and chance sinking a once-in-a-generation chance for a Second Avenue Subway and other vital transit projects.

Where They Stand

Firmly in the Yes column are Hillary Clinton and Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields. Writing in the Daily News, Fields says: For years, city civic and political leaders have decried the state's dwindling commitment to mass transit in the metropolitan area. This bond issue represents a chance to set things right and to make the transit improvements our region needs to stay competitive in the 21st century.

It's an opportunity we can't afford to pass up.

Other key players are supporting the bond act but with less enthusiasm. Governor Pataki has not thrown his full weight behind the proposal, something many consider essential to passage given the fact that 6 of 11 previous ballot measures for general obligation borrowing have been defeated over the past two decades. Mayor Giuliani recently endorsed the bond act, but his support is tepid. State Comptroller Carl McCall calls the transportation improvements essential but would prefer less borrowing. Worried about likely fare hikes, the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign criticized funding for the balance of the MTA capital program and calls on Albany to provide more state aid to transportation.

The most vocal opponent has been the conservative group, Change New York, which generally opposes debt spending.

Curiously, other key players have not taken a position. This group includes Rick Lazio.

Is it a surprise that a major ballot proposition for transportation improvements gets so little attention? Perhaps not when transportation ranks only #6 on New York City residents' lists of concerns, according to a survey just released by the City Council. Transportation is below education, crime, housing, jobs and poverty. It does beat out #7 - "nothing -- no concerns."

Bruce Schaller is Principal of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis to government, business and non-profit groups seeking to identify and meet customer needs in the transportation sector. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University.



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