Iraq Bill Has Windfall for N.Y.

Posted May 25, 2007 at 6:18pm

Buried near the middle of the roughly 250-page Iraq War spending bill that Congress passed late last week is an obscure provision that will save the state of New York nearly $50 million.

In addition to passing the $120 billion Iraq funding bill, the House sent to President Bush a supplemental package loaded with billions of dollars in unrelated domestic spending. It includes a technical change to the Help America Vote Act, legislation passed in 2002 establishing national election standards, which appears to be a windfall for the Empire State.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) took credit for the change on Friday.

The fix pushes forward by more than two years the deadline for states to use more than $300 million in federal money to replace lever and punch-card voting machines, equipment at the center of the “hanging-chad” and “pregnant-chad” controversy after the 2000 presidential election.

But other than New York — plus a few counties scattered throughout Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Alabama — all U.S. municipalities already have used the federal cash to upgrade clunky mechanical devices with computerized electronic voting machines, equipment that recently has fallen out of favor amid reports its software is ripe for viruses and easy to hack into. Many of the new machines also do not provide a paper trail, which critics claim renders recounts and contested elections nearly impossible to resolve.

Legislation currently before Congress would require all voting machines to provide a verifiable paper record, an upgrade that the Congressional Budget Office this month said would cost an additional $1.3 billion.

HAVA originally gave states until 2004 to use the federal grants to replace the aging punch-card and lever equipment. Nearly all states applied for a waiver buying them two extra years, which many used to stock polling places with new electronic voting machines.

State law in New York, however, made it difficult to bring the machines on line, according to one lobbyist familiar with the negotiations. With bulky state requirements that election experts originally considered overly cautious, once it became obvious electronic voting machines posed new problems, state officials began searching for new ways to have their cake and eat it, too: keep the money, without violating state restrictions and rushing to make changes.

“We had to make sure that the machines were going to work properly,” the lobbyist said. “Turns out [New York] was right to be careful because all of the other states spent money on machines that don’t work and now are scrapping them.”

A recent scandal involving a voting machine testing company also played into the push by New York lawmakers to extend the deadline for the switchover to March 2008. Ciber Inc., which had the contract to certify New York’s machines, became embroiled in controversy in early 2007 over its testing practices. When the company then began to undergo scrutiny by Election Assistance Commission, Empire State officials had to begin the certifying process all over again.

“New York was not going to have [new voting equipment in time] for the deadline,” the lobbyist said. “We had actually started the process, identified the company that was going to certify the [voting equipment] — Ciber — then there were questions raised by the EAC, which stalled the process again.”

If lawmakers had not extended the deadline, New York would have been on the hook to reimburse the federal government all $49.6 million, which would then have been distributed among the remaining 49 states to offset equipment upgrades.

Serrano, who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee overseeing the EAC’s budget, took credit for the change in a statement late Friday.

“I’m glad I was able to preserve New York’s funding to replace voting machines with up-to-date technology,” he said. “New York did not rush to buy replacement technologies when the funds were first available, which turned out to be the right decision. Many states now regret rushing to purchase unreliable voting technologies.”

Serrano added: “I felt strongly that New York should not be punished for its cautiousness. New York has created some of the most secure voting machine requirements in the nation, and with these funds intact, they will be able to move forward and purchase new voting machines that are accurate, user-friendly and trustworthy.”