States cleared a major hurdle in their long wait to receive nearly $2.3 billion in federal funds to update their election systems and make them more reliable. But the money will be coming too late for a complete overhaul before this Election Day.
The Election Assistance Commission, a federal panel formed as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, held its first meeting Tuesday (March 23) and announced that the federal money will be ready to distribute to states upon publication of their election-reform plans Wednesday (March 24) and formal approval by the commission.
Still, voters shouldn't expect new and improved polling places in all states by the time they cast their ballots for president in November. Even once states get the money to update outdated equipment and make other changes required by Congress, some state election officials already acknowledge changes can't be completed in 2004 and other states still aren't sure what reforms to make.
Despite the urgency with which Congress called for changes after Florida's problems in the 2000 presidential election, the federal election reform effort has been plagued by delays.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack and the war in Iraq diverted Congress' attention. After the law was signed in October 2002, the four-member election commission originally was to be appointed in February 2003. But the Bush administration was slow to appoint commissioners, the Senate was slow to confirm them, and the panel was not formed until January 2004. States couldn't get the bulk of their money until the commission was in place, then funds were held up in a snafu involving the commission not having the money until now to publish state reform plans in the Federal Register.
States now have 45 days to certify that their plans meet federal standards. Federal election officials are optimistic that payments will begin soon after.
"The EAC will work with the states over the next 45 days to ensure that they are in compliance so that there is no delay in the distribution of these much-needed funds," Commissioner Ray Martinez said at Tuesday's meeting.
While waiting for federal funds, states have moved at different rates to update their voting equipment. The Help America Vote Act doesn't require that states replace lever and punch-card machines. But it provides funding for states that switch to touch-screen machines or optical-scan machines, where voters manually mark ballots that are read electronically.
About $650 million in federal money already has been provided to states to begin updating their voting equipment.
In addition, the law asks states to create statewide voter-registration databases and institute a voter-identification program for first-time voters, among other reforms.
Florida, the epicenter of the election controversy with its famous hanging chads four years ago, is one of a handful of states that has gone ahead and replaced all mechanical voting machines with electronic ones and is now awaiting reimbursement from Washington, D.C.
Florida is slated to spend $73 million on federally mandated election reforms, dedicating 55 percent of its funds to cover the cost of replacing voting machines, according to a September 2003 report from Electionline.org, an election information website funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.
Other states, such as New York, are waiting for more direction from the federal government before deciding whether to purchase new voting machines.
Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections, said qualifying for the federal funds would be a complicated process for New York, which has more then 20,000 lever voting machines and no state-level voter registration database. "We have one of the hardest jobs to do," he said.
New York could well spend the most on election reforms: $235.6 million, most of which would pay for new machines, according to Electionline.org. Without more direction from the federal government, Daghlian said it will be difficult for New York to move forward. "We're kind of at a stalemate here," he said.
One of the election commission's jobs will be to provide states with guidelines about the types of technology and voting systems on which to rely. In some states, such as Ohio, electronic voting through touch screens or optical scanners has become a contentious issue.
Chairman DeForest Soaries announced March 22 that the election commission will hold a public hearing in the next 45 days to probe the reliability and security of electronic voting.
Susan Parnas Frederick, senior committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that states up to now have been left somewhat in the dark about how to comply with the new federal law. In addition, NCSL recently complained that the law amounted to an unfunded mandate on states.
"There are a lot of expectations being put on the (commission) that they are going to answer these questions from now on," Parnas Frederick said.