WASHINGTON - Sometimes, it pays to be pokey. Going slow has paid the state of New York about $27 million and counting. New Hampshire and Oklahoma, too, are sitting on a pile of federal money.
How did it happen? After the contested 2000 presidential recount, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, giving about $3 billion to states to replace old punch-card and lever voting machines. A lot of states, including California, Ohio and Florida, plunked down vast sums of money to buy shiny new machines, many of which were quickly deemed unreliable and mothballed.
Other states — New York among them — were slow to adopt that new technology, and now are crowing that they made the best choice after all, although federal authorities are skeptical that states can improve voting systems without spending much money.
"New York is not in last place, but rather we're in first place. We're the first state to actually get it right," said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state's election board.
That's a bit like claiming to win a foot race by not running. In fact, New York is still dependent on antiquated voting machines, which don't leave a paper trail. But state officials insist that's better than paying hundreds of millions of dollars for new machines that also don't work particularly well.
According to a recent government report, 80 percent of states have spent more than half the money they received under the Help America Vote Act to upgrade their voting machines and systems.
Three states — New York, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma — have spent only about 10 percent of their federal dollars, either by dithering or by design.
New York's notoriously dysfunctional legislature delayed so long the Justice Department sued the state, and a federal judge now gets weekly updates as he oversees its slow progress.
State officials are still sitting on a pile of cash that could be used to buy new equipment — once they decide which machines should replace the state's clunky old lever machines.
The Empire State received about $220 million in federal assistance under the Help America Vote Act, according to a report from the Election Assistance Commission. By the end of 2007, the state had spent just over $16 million, or 7.4 percent, to upgrade its voting system. Over that time, though, it earned much more money in interest, $27 million.
Kellner, the New York State election official, said time and others' bad experiences have shown there's a lot more work to be done before pulling out the government credit card.
"Right now, there is not a single voting system on the market or in use anywhere in the country that meets current federal voting standards, and very few people realize it," he said. For the 2008 election, most New York voters will still use lever machines, and Kellner said he increasingly doubts new machines will be in place in time for the 2009 elections.
Oklahoma, another penny-pinching state, has spent little money because it began using optical scanning machines in 1992, and therefore doesn't need as many upgrades as other states, officials said.
Michael Clingman, secretary of the State Election Board in Oklahoma, said they are waiting for a particular type of voting technology to be built, and don't want to buy expensive gear they don't need.
"We don't want to have to buy a $6,000 magic marker," he said.
New Hampshire also has spent only a fraction of its money, and officials in the Granite State insist that's by design: To spend only the interest earned on the federal money, so state taxpayers don't have to pick up the tab when the federal dollars run out.
David Scanlan, New Hampshire's deputy secretary of state, said that even as the state limits expenditures, it already has optical scan machines for about three of every four ballots in the state. Getting that number higher may not be practical in small towns with only 100 or so voters, he said.
Election Assistance Commission Chairwoman Rosemary Rodriguez said New Hampshire officials would have to be "miracle workers" to meet all the law's requirements while spending only the interest earned on their funds.
She also noted that New York's ancient lever machines may be comforting to those used to the clanking sound of casting a ballot, but such machines produce no paper trail and often break down.
Whatever glitches may be happening with new voting machines, Rodriguez said, the overall effect of the law has been to make elections better.
"We believe that the equipment, properly managed, will be accurate," said Rodriguez.