Primaries to test new election law

WASHINGTON (AP) --The New Hampshire primary next week will be the "first real test" of a new federal act providing billions of dollars to help states ensure that future elections will be accurate, honest and accessible, Rep. Steny Hoyer, one of the sponsors of the act, said Friday.

Other primaries that follow in February also will showcase provisions in the $3.9 billion law that help or require states to replace outdated voting equipment, establish statewide voter registration databases, require better voter identification and provide provisional ballots so qualified voters won't be turned away from polling places.

Hoyer, D-Maryland, and Rep. Bob Ney, R-Ohio, the two chief sponsors of the "Help America Vote Act" signed into law in October 2002, said that this was the first time ever that federal dollars were being used to improve the election system.

They spoke a day after Congress finished work on a giant 2004 spending bill that included $1.5 billion for the election reform program, $1 billion more than was originally budgeted. Congress also allotted $1.5 billion in the first year of the act last year.

Ney, chairman of the House Administration Committee, and Hoyer, the House's No. 2 Democrat, successfully pressed the leadership to increase the budget, arguing that it was needed to make sure that the 2004 election avoids the controversies that marred the 2000 presidential election.

"It's a very small price to pay to ensure the confidence of the American electorate," Hoyer said.

They said New Hampshire already has same-day registration, but voters there for the first time will have to abide by tougher identification requirements. Aimed at reducing voter fraud, the ID requirement has raised concerns among civil liberties groups that voters could be intimidated.

Among the early primary states, Arizona, Delaware, Oklahoma and South Carolina will have to implement or amend voter identification procedures, with first-time voters who register by mail having to show identification when they cast ballots.

Delaware and Oklahoma will have provisional ballots, used when a voter is challenged, for the first time.

The act helps states pay for equipment upgrades but leaves it to the states to decide on the technology they will use. Hoyer's office said Missouri will still mostly use the punch card machines that were at the center of the contested Florida vote in 2000. Florida has since eliminated its punch cards.

South Carolina will continue to use punch cards in 10 counties, while Arizona, which had punch card systems in nine counties in 2000, will use only optiscan machines.

Getting money to the states has been slow because the Senate only last month confirmed the four nominees chosen to run a new Election Assistance Commission, which will act as a clearinghouse for information on good election management and will be responsible for making the bulk of the grants.