HAVA: The Help America Vote Act

On October 29, 2002, President Bush signed into law sweeping legislation aimed at transforming the way Americans vote.

"The vitality of America's democracy depends on the fairness and accuracy of America's elections," Bush declared.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) emerged two years after Florida's voting debacle raised serious questions about the integrity of America's electoral process. HAVA represented an unprecedented intervention by the federal government in a domain that had been largely controlled by state and local government. The bill authorized nearly $4 billion to help states upgrade election equipment and refine and modernize voting procedures.

HAVA requires all states to adopt a number of election procedures, including provisional voting, computerized voter registration databases and voter identification requirements. But rather than "federalizing" elections, the aim is to beef up state control in order to make the voting process more consistent in cities and counties.

In addition, HAVA sets aside hundreds of millions of dollars to help states upgrade voting machines to meet technical guidelines and provide access for people with disabilities.

But with the 2004 presidential race heating up, there's growing concern that HAVA's slow implementation may leave the next election vulnerable to the kinds of problems experienced in 2000.

"We've created a cruel hoax by telling voters that we're going to improve the process and the fact of the matter is that we have little hope that we'll deliver this on time," says Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonpartisan group that works with state election officials.

HAVA mandates the creation of a federal Election Assistance Commission, made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, to work with states and counties. However, delays in appointing commissioners means that only a fraction of funds set aside to overhaul voting equipment has been dispersed to states and counties.

HAVA's funding gap led two of the law's main sponsors to urge Congress to immediately authorize nearly $2 billion to shore up the reforms.

"Without sufficient funding, the important reforms imposed by the bill will not be realized," wrote Rep. Robert Ney and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer.

According to the Federal Election Commission, as of September 2003, about $650 million had been distributed to states for the replacement of punch card and lever machines. But another $830 million remained in limbo. That money is supposed to be dispersed by the Election Assistance Commission, which doesn't yet exist.

"This is going to make it very difficult for the states to make some of the deadlines that are in the (HAVA) statute," says Peggy Simms of the FEC.

More than 30 states were still using punch card and lever machines in 2000. Some states such as Georgia have eradicated punch card machines in favor of touch screen machines and more are expected to follow suit this year.

However, at least 25 states were still using antiquated voting technology as of September 2003. Some state election officials say they may seek wavers to allow local jurisdictions to continue to use punch cards and lever machines until HAVA funds are finally released.

Some election officials say HAVA is flawed because it is not focused on the heart of the problem, which lies not in technology but in poor or inconsistent voting procedures.

"I would challenge anyone to take the Help America Vote Act and tell me if that bill were in place in November of 2000 how it would have changed anything that happened in Florida," says Ernie Hawkins, who recently retired as registrar of voters in Sacramento County. For more than 20 years, Sacramento County has conducted elections with punch cards. Hawkins says unlike in Florida there have been no problems with the machines in Sacramento County. From Hawkins' perspective, HAVA is a solution in search of a problem.

"The problem in Florida wasn't so much in the equipment but in the process," he says. "I think the problems could have been fixed nationwide without spending any money. I don't think buying new equipment is the answer."

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