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Ballot Boxing
Critics say plans to reform New York’s election systems for generations to come have been mired in partisan politics
By Travis Durfee

The task force appointed to determine the future of New York’s election systems released a draft of its reform plan earlier this week, but criticism of the plan, the process by which it was written and the task force itself has been going on for several months.

After the bungled presidential election of 2000, lawmakers in Washington quickly began crafting legislation, supposedly to ensure that the ballot confusion and voter-registration errors that tainted the Florida vote would never happened again. The solution was the Help America Vote Act, a series of federal mandates ordering states to modernize and standardize their election equipment.

Among the new requirements, HAVA directs states to implement a statewide voter-registration database, create ballot instructions, update voting systems and make polling places more accessible to the physically disabled.

The federal government has promised more than $3 billion to help states comply with these new requirements. In order to receive the federal funds, an individual state would have to a make a matching-fund contribution based on the amount it receives, and submit a plan by which the state would comply with HAVA by Sept. 30, 2003.

As the deadline for compliance with the new federal standards—and the estimated $250 million in federal funds New York would receive to reform its election system—looms, state elections officials are praising the work of the HAVA task force, but citizens groups, and some members of the task force itself, have lodged criticism with the plan and the manner in which it was written.

Assemblyman Keith Wright (D- Manhattan), who chairs the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Elections, was a member of the task force and one of the five Democrats on the 19-member committee that also included 11 Republicans and three nonpartisans.

Wright blasted the task force over his concerns that it lacked diversity, calling it “too pale, too male and not very reflective of the state of New York” at the group’s final meeting on March 26.

Critics from outside the group, like Neal Rosenstein, government-reform coordinator for the New York Public Interest Research Group, agree with Wright, alleging that the process was clouded by partisanship from its inception.

“The governor appointed the equivalent of a hanging jury of a task force,” Rosenstein said, “whose 19 members was/were both weighted and slanted with a strong majority of gubernatorial and Republican appointees.”

Rosenstein’s allegations are not unfounded. According to a document acquired from the state Board of Elections, dated January 23, all county election commissioners were informed by the state board’s deputy counsel, Pat Murray, that a HAVA task force would be created and led by the “State Chief Election Officer,” a nonexistent title within the New York state Board of Elections.

“One would think that would be the executive director [of the New York State Board of Elections], Thomas Wilkey,” Rosenstein said. “He has been somewhat of an expert on HAVA. Everyone would assume that he would be the ‘state chief election officer.’”

But when the task force was created in January, Wilkey, a Democrat, wasn’t chosen to head the state’s HAVA task force, as Pataki appointed his deputy, Peter Kosinski, a Republican.

Pataki’s office did not return calls for comment, but Lee Daghlian, director of communications for the state Board of Elections, said Kosinski’s appointment has a historical precedent.

“When we had these discussions about the plans to implement the Motor Voter law in the early ’90s, the conversation was similar,” said Daghlian. “There was a Democratic governor at the time, so most of the department heads that were on the task force were Democrats. So it makes sense this time that [the majority of task force members] were Republican because we have a Republican governor.”

Fearing that the task force might produce a slanted plan for election reform in New York, Wright and his colleagues in the state Assembly issued a series of bills earlier this month to fulfill HAVA’s requirements. None was settled prior to the end of session last week, but sources close to the issue expect them to be dealt with when the Legislature reconvenes this fall.

“Elections are a hot issue,” said Wright’s chief of staff, Terrence Tolbert. “This is a golden opportunity to bring major change to New York state so we want to do it right and spend the money as well as we can. Whatever changes we make, voters will be stuck with them for generations.”

Daghlian said he welcomes legislation to help New York comply with HAVA’s requirements, but said there is nothing stopping the Board of Elections from completing a plan based on the findings of the task force. “There is a perception that the Legislature controls everything and in this case they don’t,” Daghlian said.

But Rosenstein worries that the task force is rushing through the planning stages and that too many decisions are being made behind closed doors on an issue that will affect the political future of the state for years to come.

“What you’re talking about here, in pure, crass partisan terms, is votes,” Rosenstein said, “how many votes are cast, how easy it is to cast a vote, the potential to disenfranchise and adversely impact the voting population of different demographic areas of the state based on geography, on race, on income, et cetera.

“One would say that by retaining as much control over the process as possible, they could impact voter turnout how and where they wanted,” he said. “And even if that effect was only by half a percent, or one percent or two percent, you’re talking about tens of thousands of votes in what are sometimes very, very close elections.”

A draft of the HAVA task force’s report is available at the state Board of Elections Web site, Public comments on the plan must be sent to the board by July 23, and a public hearing will be held in Albany on July 8 in hearing room B of the Legislative Office Building at 10 AM.

John Whipple

The Promises We Make

Nearly 9,000 Promise Keepers and their supporters attended a weekend conference at the Pepsi Arena on June 20 and 21, where they were met by roughly two dozen protestors from the National Organization of Women. The Promise Keepers is a Christ-based, all-male ministry that is “dedicated to igniting and uniting men to be passionate followers of Jesus Christ through the effective communication of the 7 Promises,” according to the group’s Web site. But NOW believes that the group’s message contains a nasty undercurrent—mainly the subjugation of women and an outright anti-gay sentiment. The weekend conference, titled The Challenge, also was attended by a number of groups and individuals supporting the Promise Keepers, including a number of women carrying signs that read “Proud to be a PK wife” and “Thank you for taking The Challenge.” The Promise Keepers was founded in 1990 by Bill McCartney, the then-football coach for the University of Colorado, and Dave Wardell.

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