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Helping America vote: after more than 200 years of voting, the United States is about to make a massive investment in the neglected elections infrastructure. The feds have made a down payment, but will all the money be there?

Every vote counts.

Nobody has to remind Wyoming Representative Liz Gentile of that. When the votes were tallied in her race for Wyoming House District 36 last fall, the Associated Press reported that she lost--by just one vote.

When she called the courthouse to confirm, she was thrilled to learn that she had, in fact, won by one vote. "I always said to people, your vote does count," says Gentile.

The story, of course, didn't end there. First, there was the inevitable recount that gave her two more votes. Then county elections officials discovered "voting irregularities." Thirteen people were given the wrong ballot and shouldn't have voted for District 36 representative. With the margin of victory being only three votes and no way to determine who the 13 incorrect voters had chosen, the state canvassing board ordered a new election. This time Gentile won by a more convincing 323-vote margin.

"In a way, I'm glad it was so close because it let people know that every vote really does matter," she says.

Murky elections are nothing new, and although the election for Wyoming House District 36 was not as high profile as the 2000 presidential election, both reveal a pressing need for a major restructuring of the way elections are administered. From outdated voting equipment to a chronic shortage of qualified election workers, the infrastructure has been crumbling from a lack of attention and funding.

Many states started to identify critical areas for improving the process after the 2000 election. More than half appointed a special task force or committee to examine every aspect of elections. Numerous national organizations, including the National conference of State Legislatures, contributed to the debate by offering recommendations on how to improve the process.

MAJOR REFORM FROM WASHINGTON

A few states, including Florida, Georgia and Maryland, enacted sweeping reforms in 2001 and 2002, complete with major cash infusions. Others pursued low cost fixes like clarifying voter intent and recount procedures. Most states, however, were holding back and waiting for a big investment in elections by the federal government. Would Congress follow through on its rhetoric and enact meaningful reform backed up with desperately needed federal dollars?

True to its word, congress passed landmark election reform with broad bipartisan support just three weeks before the 2002 general election. The 161-page law addresses most, if not all, of the problems that led to the 2000 Florida debacle. And it authorizes more than $3.8 billion in federal money (only partially appropriated) to shore up the election process and infrastructure.

"The administration of elections is primarily a state and local responsibility," President Bush said when he signed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) last October. "The federal government will help state and local officials conduct elections that have the confidence of all Americans."

Ohio Congressman Bob Ney, a key sponsor of the legislation, called it a move forward with "real reform and real solutions that will ensure America's voting system is the best in the world."

The law requires states to reform numerous aspects of the way elections are run. Of course, some of the updates are extremely costly, so a big question remains whether Congress will fully appropriate the promised $3.8 billion and when?

"This must not turn into another unfunded mandate from Washington," says New Mexico House Elections Committee Chair Representative Ed Sandoval. "The federal money appropriated in February is a great start, but states like New Mexico are counting on Congress to make good on its promise."

PAYING FOR REFORM

Full funding is far from assured despite a promising up-front investment from Congress in February. Just when states were starting to get nervous, Congress made a substantial down payment with the FY 2003 omnibus budget bill. The long overdue bill appropriated $1.5 billion for election reform. This money will help states get started in earnest with some of the early mandates. Uncertainty remains as to future full funding. The president's FY 2004 budget request has only $500 million for elections reform, far short of the $1.5 billion originally authorized for 2004.

"The biggest hurdle, or uncertainty, to date has been the money," says Doug Chapin of electionline.org, an information clearinghouse set up after the Florida disaster. "States can't plan without the money, and can't get the money without a plan."

The new money from Congress includes $650 million in "early money" to be paid to states based on population. That money is intended for planning, new equipment and general improvements, and it comes with relatively few strings and no required match from the states. An additional $850 million will be distributed as federal grants with a 5 percent match.

States are optimistic that the total amount promised will eventually be available. In mid-February, bills were pending in at least 10 legislatures to establish the special election funds required by the new law. At least two states, Hawaii and Wyoming, were already looking at setting aside enough money to meet the state matching requirements. Another 15 states were examining major pieces of legislation to comply with the act.

Mississippi Senator Hob Bryan, chair of the Senate election committee, is pushing legislation in the Magnolia State to implement the federal voting act. "The most difficult thing for us is not necessarily the money, but deciding how to implement the federal law. However, the money gets us off square one and started on real reform." Mississippi's share of the federal money could be well over $35 million.

The sobering fact is that no matter what level of funding ultimately comes from the feds, the voting act requires states to make a number of fundamental changes in how elections are run. Some states, like Florida and Georgia, are in relatively good shape thanks to reforms enacted in the past two years. Others have a daunting task ahead with some onerous deadlines looming.

"States must get going immediately on planning and making the necessary statutory changes to comply with the law," says Leslie Reynolds, executive director for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

WHAT'S REQUIRED?

If your legislature is not already looking at the election code side by side with the HAVA, make it a priority; the law mandates considerable changes for almost every state.

One of the first things to look at is a voter registration database. The federal law requires states to install a computerized, uniform, centralized, interactive, statewide voter registration database by 2006. "This will be the biggest challenge for many states," warns Reynolds.

Only 10 states have a fully unified system, according to electionline.org. Eleven have essentially no system at all. At least eight states are moving quickly toward a statewide system, including Pennsylvania, which passed a HAVA compliance bill in December. (North Dakota is exempt because it does not require any voter to register before voting.)

Glenn Newkirk, president of Infosentry, a North Carolina company that helps states and counties develop voter registration systems, notes that the new requirements will be very complex, rivaling the largest IT systems that states presently operate.

It's simply "a huge system," says Newkirk. He also points out that some "80 percent of large technology projects come in late, over budget or fail outright." He says states must start developing systems now. And "legislators must get involved early so they don't have sticker shock when they see the final costs of installing and maintaining them." Finally, Newkirk observes that this provision represents a "massive shift in election administration from local governments to the states."

Another big-ticket mandate is improving access for disabled voters. The new law requires states to offer at least one fully accessible voting machine at every polling place. The equipment must allow the disabled to vote without assistance and in private. There were more than 187,000 precincts for the 2002 election, according to Washington-based Election Data Services, and new accessible equipment will have to be purchased for the majority of those polling sites. The new law also authorizes $100 million in federal grants to improve access to the polling sites and train election workers to assist disabled voters. This reform may have the most direct impact on voting. "The nation's disabled will see a huge change in how they vote," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Houston-based Election Center.

UPGRADING EQUIPMENT

Voting machines and systems get full attention in the new legislation. Early money can be used to replace antiquated lever and punch card machines, used by more than 36 percent of Americans, according to a 2002 report from Election Data Services.

The federal act also requires that all systems allow voters to check their ballot for errors before leaving the polling place. Voters must be able to correct ballots if they discover that they have "overvoted" (selected two candidates for one office). States are required to define in law what constitutes a vote on any system being used-something many have already done.

The most controversial aspect of the new bill may be its fraud prevention measures. "Politically, the voter ID provision could be difficult, very divisive and partisan," says Chapin. Under the new law, states must ask new registrants for either a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number. If they haven't either, the state will assign them a unique identifying number. Voters who register by mail must either enclose a copy of positive identification, such as a driver's license or electric bill or they will have to show identification when they show up to vote. Some civil rights groups fear the voter ID requirements could discourage voters from going to the polls. While the National Association for Advancement of Colored People was generally pleased with the final version of election reform, it has reservations about the ID section. In an alert to members it said: "Many low-income Americans do not have a photo ID. In some ways, this adds an additional burden to first-time voters akin to the pall taxes that were eliminated in the 1965 Voting Rights Act."

The new law also requires all states to establish a complaint process for voters who feel their rights were violated. Grievances will have to be submitted in writing and notarized. The law spells out a tight timetable for states to hear complaints and address them.

NEVER TURNED AWAY AGAIN

Voters should never be turned away from the polls again. The law mandates that states establish provisional voting that allows citizens to cast ballots even if their names don't show up on precinct lists. Elections officials would then review each provisional ballot to determine the voter's eligibility. Lewis says this is a reform that most states should enact swiftly. "Provisional voting shouldn't cost that much on the front end," he says.

A series of smaller, yet crucial, reforms also are part of the act. They call for better pollworker training, improved voter education, outreach efforts to high school and college students, guidelines for overseas and military voting, and increased voter information at polling sites. The National Association of Secretaries of State's Reynolds fears that these vital programs could get shortchanged if funding is not adequate. "I don't know if the states will be able to follow through on voter education, pollworker training and reforms like that if the federal commitment is not what was promised," she says.

NEW COMMISSION

The Help America Vote Act sets up a new federal Election Assistance Commission of four full-time, bipartisan commissioners appointed by the White House. This commission will receive state plans for using the HAVA money and issue voluntary guidelines on how to comply. The law also sets up two advisory boards to the commission including a 37-member board that will have two members appointed by NCSL. The commission is expected to spearhead research on the American election process and is required by law to conduct several specific studies immediately, including one on how "human factors" affect the conduct of elections.

That brings us back to Wyoming Representative Gentile. When asked if this new federal reform bill will guarantee that her election scenario was a one-time occurrence, she seemed skeptical saying, "Any time you have humans involved in the system, there's potential for error." The Help America Vote Act will undoubtedly improve things, but who knows when another perfect storm will converge to throw an election into chaos.

RELATED ARTICLE: COMPLYING WITH THE HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT

There was an enormous surge in state election reform legislation after the 2000 Florida presidential election. The high volume continues this session, with a new twist--many state legislatures are looking at what their state must do to comply with the new Help America Vote Act.

States didn't wait on the federal government to release money for HAVA before they acted--at least 28 introduced compliance bills in advance of the federal funding. Some are comprehensive bills that seek to bring most sections of the state's election code into line with the federal act--Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Oregon have such bills. Pennsylvania has already passed a comprehensive compliance bill.

These comprehensive bills address voter registration, provisional voting, centralized statewide voter registration systems, voting systems, voter intent, funding, chief election official responsibilities, voter identification and more.

Other states are addressing a narrower section of the voting act. For instance, Colorado has a bill to update its statutes on military and overseas voters, Illinois may update its provisional voting regulations. Nebraska is considering creating a uniform statewide voter registration database. And Utah has a bill to update its voter registration procedures. Nine states have taken the basic first step of creating a fund to receive federal money disbursed under the voting act.

NCSL's database of election reform has been updated to make searching easier. Visit the database at www.ncsl.org/programs/leg man/elect/elections.cfm and select the topic "HAVA Compliance" to view a full list of these bills.

STATES WITH HAVA COMPLIANCE LEGISLATION IN 2003

Arizona

Colorado

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Kentucky

Maryland

Massachusetts

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

New Hampshire

New Jersey

North Dakota

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Dakota

Tennessee

Utah

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wyoming

--Jennifer Bowser, NCSL

MAJOR AREAS OF REFORM IN THE HELP AMERICA VOTE ACT

* Federal funding

* Statewide voter registration databases

* Access for people with disabilities

* Identification needed for registration

* Voting equipment overhaul

* Minimum standards for voting machines

* Provisional ballots

* Grievance procedures for voters

* Voter information at poll sites

* Military and overseas voters

* Pollworker training

* Voter education

* Citizenship question for registration forms

* Voter fraud

* High school and college student election workers

* Research into the elections process

* Federal Election Assistance Commission

MORE INFORMATION ON THE WEB

For a complete and detailed summary of the Help America Vote Act, prepared jointly by NCSL and the National Association of Secretaries of State, go to NCSL's elections homepage at: www.ncsl.org/programs/legman/elect/elect.htm. The site features a database of pending and enacted state legislation from the past three years dealing with all facets of election reform.

NCSL is planning an early summer conference to help legislators and state policymakers discuss best practices for effectively implementing the voting act. The Web site will have more details about the conference. It includes links to many other useful sites on election reform, like www.electionline.org that offers up-to-the-minute news and analysis on election reform.

Tim Storey is NCSL's elections and redistricting expert.
COPYRIGHT 2003 National Conference of State Legislatures
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Copyright 2003, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Storey, Tim
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8WY
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:2565
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