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Post date: July 20 2001

Spitzer Helps Strengthen The Election Process In Westchester County

State Attorney General Spitzer today announced a cooperative agreement with the Westchester County Board of Elections (Board of Elections) to ensure full participation of registered voters and enable election officials to curb voter fraud during the election process.

The "best practices letter agreement" was reached to address concerns from Latino voters in Yonkers that their registrations in the Independence Party were unlawfully challenged prior to the September 2000 primary. The agreement, believed to be the first-of-its-kind between the state Attorney General and a local board, requires the Board of Elections to reject challenges that are not duly sworn and based on specific, stated evidence; send out letters, in English and Spanish, to notify a voter that his or her registration is being challenged prior to cancellation of that registration; and provide clear forms for a voter to contest a challenge to his or her residency.

"I am pleased that the Westchester Board of Elections has agreed to strengthen its procedures in order to ensure that no qualified voter will be denied the right to cast a ballot. More broadly, however, the problems that give rise to the agreement are part of an election law system that needs serious review and reform," AG Spitzer said.

The Attorney General pointed out that his recommendation to establish same-day voter registration and create a statewide, computerized voter registration list accessible at every polling site would allow greater participation, and ease verification of voter status, by assisting registered voters in proving their qualifications to vote.

In the summer of 2000, the Attorney General's office investigated numerous complaints from members of the Latino community in Yonkers that Albert P. Higgins had challenged the efforts of approximately 45 Latino voters attempting to register in the Independence Party. The challenges were based on residency requirements. In response, officers from the Yonkers Police Department were dispatched to check the residency of the challenged voters. Ultimately, the registrations of 23 voters were not accepted.

While the state Election Law authorizes investigations based on sworn complaints, the Board of Elections failed to: (1) require the Higgins challenges to be sworn and to be supported by the requisite factual basis; (2) formally notify voters that their registration had been challenged; and (3) give notice to affected voters that their registrations were about to be cancelled. These failures frustrated potential voters' right to contest the cancellations, as the law requires. In addition, voters' registrations were illegally declared invalid based on the fact that when the police visited the residence, no one was home.

In his report, "Voting Matters In New York," which addressed voter participation, ballot access, the mechanics of voting, and the integrity of New York State elections, the Attorney General concluded that several changes could be made immediately to increase voter turnout, ensure accurate vote casting and vote verification, and avoid confusion in the upcoming elections in New York City.

Spitzer said: "Given the unprecedented number of available seats in the New York City Council and other local offices, we could greatly compromise the results and integrity of expected close elections if we do not address immediately equipment malfunctions and polling place inadequacies throughout our boroughs."

Spitzer also noted that local candidates faced the most confusing, stringent and needless petition requirements for ballot access in the country - too many signatures are required, too little time is given to gather these signatures. Saying that New York's process is designed to keep candidates off the ballot, thereby limiting voter choice and often resulting in lengthy administrative challenges and litigation, the Attorney General urged fundamental reform of the petition requirements such as cutting in half the signatures required, lengthening the petition period and eliminating other technical requirements, such as listing a voter's specific town or city address."

Key recommendations in the Attorney General's report include:

Upgrading Existing Voter Machines: Most New Yorkers vote on 40-year-old lever machines that are obselete. They often break down, which causes long lines at polling sites, especially throughout New York City. The federal government and the State Legislature should earmark funding to upgrade the current 40-year-old technology, which would improve the integrity of the electoral system.

Establishing Statewide Standards for Absentee Vote Counting: Four New York counties use punch cards for absentee ballots. Whether to count hanging or dimpled chads is left entirely to the discretion of local boards of election. Establishing State standards for counting hand-marked ballots and punch-cards will ensure fairness and integrity in election results.

Strengthening Voter Fraud Enforcement: While New York has a comprehensive set of laws for criminal prosecution of election fraud, in cases that do not rise to the level of criminal culpability, there are few tools for enforcement. New York should authorize the state Board of Elections to impose civil monetary penalties for violations of the Election law, and enact criminal penalties for the destruction of computerized voting data.

Moving the State's Primary Date from September to June: New York's September primary - held just two months before the general election - places great pressure on county boards. Where primary results are extremely close and/or challenged in court, most or all of the general campaign period might pass before the primary results are known. Moving the primary election to June will permit sufficient time for all vote counting and legal challenges to occur before the date of the run-off or general election.

Some of the Attorney General's recommendations require State legislation, while others can be implemented immediately. Attorney General Spitzer noted that there is already legislation pending in Albany that would implement some of reforms that he is proposing, and there are other similar bills that have been recently introduced that merit consideration. Spitzer urged the Senate, Assembly and Governor to reach a consensus quickly to provide for greater efficiencies in the electoral system.

The Attorney General's report, which was issued in February and is available on the OAG website, is intended to assist election officials and the general public.

The agreement with the Westchester Board of Elections was handled by Assistant Attorneys General Hilary Klein and Sabrina Comizzoli of the AG's Civil Rights Bureau, which is under the direction of Bureau Chief Andrew Celli, and Assistant Attorney General In Charge of the Westchester Regional Office Gary Brown.