Gov's Panel Should Put Voters First

March 25, 2003

The Daily News
March 25, 2003

In October, President Bush signed the Help America Vote Act. It is designed to help states reduce barriers to voting and restore confidence in the system. Gov. Pataki, however, has turned New York’s implementation process into a political power grab that focuses more on party politicians than on voters.

Under the law, the chief state election official appoints a task force of what the legislation calls stakeholders, election officials and other citizens to develop an implementation plan. After the law was passed, the executive director of the state’s Board of Elections, Thomas Wilkey, invited advocates representing those minority and immigrant communities that stand to be most affected - the true stakeholders - to join a task force to develop a plan. In January, however, Pataki intervened.

Without explanation, he announced that Wilkey’s deputy, Peter Kosinski, would be considered the state’s chief state election official. Wilkey is a Democrat; Kosinski is a Republican.

The governor also designated a new task force; of 19 members, 15 are sitting government officials. The committee includes state Sen. Nicholas Spano, the Westchester Republican whose campaign manager recently pleaded guilty to election fraud for creating fake absentee ballots to increase the senator’s vote total. Furthermore, there is not a single representative from organizations that protect voting rights of immigrants and communities of color. Why does this matter? The Help America Vote Act can be a double-edged sword. It can upgrade voting machines, create a statewide database of registered voters and provide better access for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency. But if New York is not alert, it also threatens serious pitfalls for voters. The new law can be used - and is being used - as an excuse to erect barriers to voting. Since it was signed, at least eight states have passed or introduced bills that would impose more stringent identification requirements than the law demands. Several of these bills would require that all voters provide photo identification. Inflexible requirements are certain to have a severe and discriminatory impact on the voting rights of Americans without standard forms of ID, who are disproportionately minorities and new citizens. Only by including representatives who understand the special concerns of the communities affected by this law and its double-edged promise can Pataki guarantee that the law will broaden, rather than undermine, New Yorkers’ right to vote. The final meeting of the task force is slated for tomorrow, but that is an arbitrary ending. The governor has the right to add stakeholders to the task force, and he should immediately do so. In addition, public hearings should be scheduled before - and after - the task force completes its plan. Despite requests from its members, Kosinski has been unwilling to commit to more meetings or public hearings to help develop the plan.

If Pataki implements the law without adequate concern for voters’ rights, many votes will not be cast or counted.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeremy Creelan is associate counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law.