Elections system panel pleads for help

Commissioners ask lawmakers for an additional $10M to fund research on voting systems

For Immediate Release:

May 13, 2004

Contact:Deborah Barfield Barry

Newsday

WASHINGTON -- Strapped for resources and time, the new federal agency set up to improve the nation's election system pleaded with lawmakers yesterday for an additional $10 million for research into what voting equipment works, and into whether to get rid of outdated machinery like the kind used in New York.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers vowed to try to get $1 million by the end of this month so that states might receive information on reforms that have proven successful in time for the November elections.

"We need the dollars in place," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), a co-sponsor of the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which set up the Election Assistance Commission. "This commission is badly underfunded."

The Bush administration's budget request for next year sets aside $10 million in operational funds for the commission and another $40 million to fund state election projects.

The commission, however, asked a House Appropriations subcommittee yesterday for an extra $10 million for research that would review everything from voter turnout to the effectiveness and security of electronic voting equipment, an issue that has stirred national debate. It also will look at voting equipment, including lever machines. A commissioner was in New York monitoring its lever system during the March primary.

Commission members said there is little research on such issues. "We are woefully inadequate in just knowing stuff," said DeForest Soaries, chairman of the commission.

Concerns are not just about the effectiveness and vulnerabilities of machines, but about the impact of human errors, Soaries said.

Meanwhile, states have already received $650 million to improve and upgrade voting equipment. Another $2.3 billion is slated to be disbursed this week.

"Many states are waiting to spend the first round of money to see where we're going," said Soaries, adding that the data could help commissioners provide evidence-based recommendations. "This research is late, but better late than never. But many states will tell you they won't spend a dime" until they get federal guidance, he said.

Set back by delays and a lack of funding, the bipartisan commission began operating in January. The four commissioners were supposed to be in place by February 2003, but were only appointed in December.

The commission held its first public hearing last week, and hopes in July to offer states guidelines on best approaches used by election officials.

Without the extra funding, the commission said it would have to take $2.8 million from its operating budget to fund limited research. That funding wouldn't be enough for the data needed and would hurt the agency, which officials say is already understaffed with about 10 employees, officials said. The agency doesn't have a director.

While lawmakers agreed the research should be done, some suggested the money could be shifted from state grants. "It's not rocket science, but it's very important science," said Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.).

Others, however, questioned what could be learned that officials don't already know and how funding could be disbursed to states before the research is completed.

Still some Republicans and Democrats said none of the research will have an impact this fall. "We'll be lucky if it has an impact on the '06 elections," Rep. John Olver (D-Mass.) said.