REMEMBER FLORIDA 2000? Chads, hanging and dimpled. Confusion when we should have had conclusion. Not this country's proudest electoral moment.
Congress was embarrassed. So in 2002 it passed the Help America Vote Act. “HAVA” required states to improve electoral education, training and administration, and to make it possible for people with disabilities to cast their votes, privately and independently, with the rest of the electorate at the polling place.
Wait -- didn't HAVA also outlaw the lever voting machines that New York had been using for decades?
In a word: No. But it did offer extra funding to states looking to upgrade their equipment. Many were eager to jump on the first bandwagon that would distance them from Florida 2000, and with federal money available to do so, they did so. A state that promised to get rid of punch-card or lever machines could collect a pretty penny -- in New York's case, $50 million.
Wow -- such a deal. Except that our machines were working quite well, thank you, assuming they were appropriately maintained and all the crucial bipartisan checks and balances were executed. In many ways, they worked better than the electronic machines that replaced them.
Oh well. New York took the $50 mil and vowed to optionally lose the levers while it made the mandatory electoral revisions. Our state legislature's 2005 Election Reform and Modernization Act (ERMA) codified that promise. (It was under ERMA that elections became the responsibility of counties instead of towns and cities.)
Not every state met HAVA's January 2006 implementation deadline, though, and New York would be the last to comply. The federal Department of Justice started riding herd on noncompliant states and filed suit against us. The state's response to the DOJ was: “We're on it. We already passed a law, and we're just trying to find a good machine.” Adjusting its deadline, the DOJ said, “Step on it, New York; we'll be watching you like a hawk.”
Having borne witness to the myriad problems other states were encountering with their newfangled electronic systems, our state Board of Elections was cautious. To their credit, they set the bar high. To their dismay, they located no worthy specimens. A really good electronic voting machine was beyond the state of the art.
Nevertheless, the DOJ's mandate, now linked to ERMA, required replacing the levers. So, on the taxpayers' dime, voting-machine vendors went to work. (Such a deal... for them.) Too often, their products were “crap” (that's the technical term applied by one of our state election commissioners). Still the DOJ insisted. Finally, with another deadline approaching, the state board gave counties a choice of two machines.
Both of them optically scanned and tabulated each voter's individually marked paper ballot before storing it in a ballot box within. The feature that was required by HAVA was a ballot-marking device (BMD) that enabled a voter with any of a variety of disabilities to mark his or her ballot. The BMD represented a momentous breakthrough for the disabilities community. In the past, such voters had felt marginalized, and justifiably so, because they couldn't vote without another person's help. That meant their votes weren't private, and secrecy of the ballot is a fundamental right. With HAVA, the civil rights of this community were realized. It was a watershed moment.
It's sad that, while New Yorkers associate HAVA with helping the disabled to vote, they also often associate HAVA with high costs and meddling -- with fixing something that wasn't “broke.” That's an unfair and tragic conflation of the reality.
Yes, HAVA gave people with disabilities the voting rights they deserved. No, HAVA didn't require us to give up our lever voting machines and substitute them with “op-scans.” Nor did HAVA require us to expend the money that we did (and will continue to). That was the work of our legislature when it grabbed the “free” money that was offered (as if federal money is manna from heaven) in order to “modernize” our voting equipment.
ERMA steered us onto the path of difficult and expensive op-scan election administration that we now tread. HAVA, though, really did help. In a variety of ways, it improved election administration, and it provided, finally, the same voting rights to people with disabilities that so many of us take for granted.
Virginia Martin is Democratic election commissioner of Columbia County.