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States to Get Federal Money for Voting Improvements

States can expect by mid-May to get a long-awaited $2.3 billion in federal help to buy new voting-booth equipment and make other election improvements, the head of an electoral reform commission promised Monday.

Still, millions of voters again will be using the much maligned punch cards in this fall's presidential balloting. Many of the improvements, including plans for statewide computerized voter registration data, aren't expected to be in place before 2006.

Members of the new Election Assistance Commission (search) assured state officials at a conference Monday that they will expedite the distribution of $2.3 billion in federal funds for election improvements. About $650 million already has been provided.

DeForest B. Soaries, the commission's chairman, said the various state plans for using the money will soon be published in the Federal Register (search) with funds to be disbursed 45 days after that -- or about the middle of May.

In an interview, Soaries said it is important that the states be given "an absolute commitment from the federal government" that the funds -- already approved by Congress -- will be provided by a certain date.

Paul DeGregorio, another of the commission members, said that while some changes at polling places already are being seen in the primaries, other improvements "will be pushed off until 2006 because of [states] not getting the money" sooner and delays in getting the commission in place.

In response to the problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election, Congress in 2002 authorized $3.86 billion over three years to help states modernize their election systems and created the commission to disburse the funds and establish voluntary standards for states on how elections should be conducted.

But so far only about $650 million has been disbursed. An additional $2.3 billion has been appropriated by Congress, but was set aside pending creation of the four-member commission.

State election officials said that while many improvements have been made, the delay in getting the federal money has prevented the purchase of new technology and other needed changes.

"States have not been twiddling their thumbs," said Mary Kiffmeyer of Minnesota, president of the National Association of Secretaries of State (search). But she added, "We're already on a short timeframe. Any further delay ... would just greatly hinder [the program's] success."

R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center (search), which represents election officials, said the delay in federal assistance has put states "at least a year and a half behind" in making all the election reforms the 2002 law envisioned.

The law calls for helping states upgrade election equipment and make other improvements. But it leaves it up to the states to decide what technologies they use. In addition to equipment purchases, the money can be used for better training of election workers, establishing voter registration databases and other election reform measures to assure more orderly and fair voting.

Soaries said while states have moved on their own and expect many of the improvements to be in place for this fall's election, "the law did not assume the complete overhaul will occur until 2006." And he said new technologies have brought new concerns that need to be addressed such as assuring that new machines and wireless transmission systems are safeguarded against tampering.

This fall, six of every 10 voters will use electronically enhanced voting systems, according to a recent study by Election Data Services (search), a political consulting firm. But nearly a third of all voters will turn in paper ballots and more than 18 percent -- or 32 million voters -- will continue to vote on the type of punch cards that were at the center of the brouhaha in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.