New York State is not immune from the same sort of election nightmare that plagued Florida last fall, state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer said Monday as he called for a range of new steps to modernize the way people vote.
Among the proposals by the Democrat is upgrading the 22,000 lever-type machines that most New Yorkers have used for more than four decades. Among the newer technologies under consideration are electronic devices that allow voters to cast their ballots on a computer screen. But it would not be cheap: It could cost well more than $100 million to replace the aging workhorses.
The attorney general also proposed allowing residents to register to vote right up until Election Day -- instead of the 25 days before Election Day, which currently is law -- as a way to help improve turnout, which last November fell to 49 percent statewide.
He also called for moving the state's primary election from September to June. The September date has long been criticized by challengers who win bitterly fought primaries and then are left cash-poor and battered in the eight weeks before the general election in November.
"Democracy is worth investing in," said Spitzer, who called on the state and federal governments to pick up the lion's share of the costs, which traditionally have been borne by local taxpayers.
Spitzer said New York should also make it easier for candidates to get on the ballot by sharply reducing the number of signatures needed to qualify for a position. For presidential candidates, qualifying for federal matching funds would earn an automatic place on the New York ballot -- an idea that would have prevented the futile but nasty legal challenge mounted by the state Republican power structure to keep Arizona Sen. John McCain off the 2000 presidential primary ballot here. McCain, in turn, backed Spitzer's package Monday.
In a written statement, McCain still smarting from attempts by Gov. George E. Pataki and other top New York Republicans to block him from the ballot last year -- said the reforms Spitzer is proposing would "ensure that New Yorkers are able to make a choice on Election Day and rid the system of the machine-style political control that was in place during the last primary election cycle."
Many of Spitzer's proposals, in fact, have been floating around the Capitol in one form or another for years, if not decades. Some of changes have not occurred because of concerns about vote fraud. But much of the state's election law has come to serve incumbents well through the years by making it more difficult for challengers.
But the vote-counting controversy in the presidential race in Florida last fall has led Republicans and Democrats in Albany to agree that the time could be ripe for voting reforms. However, questions surround how extensive such reforms would be.
At the very least, all sides seem focused on doing something about the 22,000 lever-type voting machines that, while mechanically unable to produce the uncertainty seen in Florida, are so old that the companies that produced them are out of business and that replacement parts can be difficult to find. Driving much of the interest in Albany now is that Congress, following all the uncertainty surrounding the Florida outcome, is showing signs of opening up the federal budget to help states purchase new voting machines.
"I honestly believe there will be funding coming to New York, and I believe now is the time we can do something," said State Sen. Serphin R. Maltese, R-Queens, chairman of the Senate Elections Committee.
"Timing is everything," agreed Assemblyman David S. Sidikman, a Democrat from Nassau County who is chairman of the Assembly Election Law Committee. His panel is holding four hearings this spring -- including one on March 22 in Buffalo -- to consider changes to the system of voting in New York. "Florida made us focus on what could happen. We want to avoid that kind of thing here," Sidikman said.
Government reform groups, including the League of Women Voters and the New York Public Interest Research Group, offered support for the package unveiled by Spitzer.
Indeed, while New York elections officials last fall boasted that a situation such as Florida's could never happen here, there are similarities between the two states, according to Spitzer and others calling for reforms, who pointed to a State Senate campaign in Manhattan that took longer to decide than the presidential race in Florida.
Moreover, the punch-card system so heavily criticized in Florida is in use in Westchester, Rockland, Monroe and St. Lawrence counties for those voting by absentee ballot.
Additionally, New York's law -- like Florida's -- requires absentee ballots from military personnel to be postmarked, despite the fact that many military postal facilities do not postmark letters.
Spitzer joined a growing chorus of groups pushing for ways to attract more poll watchers. Increasingly, election boards must rely on elderly poll watchers, many of whom receive little or no training. One Senate plan would increase pay for the inspectors to $250, from $130, for the 15-hour day.