Only a few weeks ago, New York State risked losing over $200 million in federal aid because legislators from the State Senate and Assembly just couldn’t compromise.
Now the state has created a joint conference committee to work out differences between the two houses in order to secure funds to improve voting practices in New York. The money will be used to bring the state into compliance with the Help America Vote Act, a federal act that encourages states to reform their voting practices.
The conference committee has already agreed on which voting machines to buy, who will own the machines, how to create a statewide voter registration list, and how voter complaints should be handled.
They have yet to decide, however, on several potentially contentious issues, including what kind of identification will be accepted at polls, an issue particularly relevant to the many immigrants without proper identification who live in New York.
Both houses agree that the formation of the conference committee was important to protect New York State’s voters. A similar committee formed last year dissolved before necessary agreements were forged to spend the new federal monies, which were released after questionable voting acts in Florida in 2000.
HAVA “will protect the integrity of our election process, ensure that every vote counts ... and meets the requirements of special-needs voters,” said Sen. John Flanagan (R-Long Island) in a press release on Feb. 15.
The decisions implemented by HAVA will create “the most open process possible,” said Sisa Moyl, a spokeswoman for Assembly democrats.
Legislators agree that HAVA is a necessary step in protecting voters and resolving issues of uncounted votes and voter fraud faced in the last national election.
“Voting is important—we’ve learned how close elections can be,” said Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell (D-Morningside Heights). “People have to have confidence that their vote will be counted.”
“One of the most important things is making sure the voters are protected,” said Ben Rosen, a spokesman for Assemblyman Keith Wright (D-Harlem). In the last national election, he said that there were “instances of corruption. [We wanted to] protect against that in New York.”
The HAVA conference committee has addressed this by agreeing to purchase voting machines that protect voters by giving them a receipt that acknowledges their vote has been counted. The committee also chose to purchase voting machines that can be used by persons with disabilities.
But some issues have yet to be decided, including what forms of identification will be accepted at the polls. While Senators advocate accepting only government-issued identification cards at the polls, the assembly is pushing for broader ID requirements. The issue is particularly relevant in New York City, where many residents do not have drivers’ licenses.
The Senate, in its Voter ID bill, is pushing for strict legislation requiring either a valid photo ID, a utility bill, a bank statement, or other government document.
Some local leaders think this policy is an appropriate step that must be taken to protect voters. “This is proper—there are a lot of people who are not even citizens who are voting improperly,” said Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, chair of Community Board 9.
Other city leaders, however, believe these requirements may make it more difficult for their constituents to vote.
“When you live outside the city, you have a driver’s license. In cities, that’s not the case,” O’Donnell said. He hopes the committee will keep the ID requirements as open as possible.
Rosen agreed. He noted that many citizens in Assemblyman Wright’s district are advocating for increasingly open ID requirements to protect immigrants and the homeless, who do not have access to traditional forms of identification. He said that the Assemblyman is considering ways to “provide people who usually don’t have an address an ID.”
But both assemblymen and senators in the conference committee believe they will be able to work through these issues to secure the funds from the federal government for HAVA.
“The most important thing is that we get the money and have an opportunity to spend the money,” Rosen said. “If we don’t spend it this year, it’s gone.”
New York and Alaska are the only states in the union that have not implemented HAVA.