States May Soon Get $2.3B for Elections

A long-awaited $2.3 billion in federal funds should be flowing to states by mid-May to help buy new voting-booth equipment and make other election improvements, the head of an electoral reform commission says.

But 32 million voters in this fall's presidential election will continue to vote on the type of punch cards that were at the center of the Florida voting brouhaha in 2000 and which was a major reason Congress to decide to help states modernize their election equipment.

Many of the improvements, including plans for statewide computerized voter registration data, aren't expected to be in place before 2006.

About $650 million already has been provided to the states. An additional $2.3 billion has been appropriated by Congress, but was set aside pending creation of the four-member Election Assistance Commission (search).

But commission members assured state officials Monday that they would expedite distribution of the $2.3 billion.

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

In an interview, Soaries said it was important that the states be given "an absolute commitment from the federal government" that the funds would be provided by a certain date.

Paul DeGregorio, another of the commission members, said that while some changes at polling places already were 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.

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.

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. 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, 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 changes 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 may 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."

This fall, six of every 10 voters will use electronically enhanced voting systems, according to a recent study by Election Data Services, a political consulting firm.