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Plan to improve elections advances

(Published July 14, 2003)

By PETER STOLZ

Staff Writer

A committee has recommended that the Board of Elections and Ethics direct $5 million in federal funds to modernize the city’s computerized voter registration system, improve pollworker recruitment and training, and expand voter education.

The recommendations came after the District was granted federal funding to improve its voting procedures toward complying with standards set forth in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). The District already meets most of the requirements.

Last March, the Board of Elections and Ethics formed the District of Columbia State Planning Committee to make recommendations for the implementation of HAVA. The committee was comprised of 30 members, including elections board employees, representatives from nonprofit organizations and registered D.C. voters.

The board released its "Preliminary Plan for Implementing the Help America Vote Act in the District of Columbia" on June 23 after receiving to the committee’s recommendations. The board then held a public hearing on July 8 to receive comments from committee members and the public about the proposed plan.

Most persons who testified at the hearing said they are satisfied with the substance of the preliminary plan, but many also said they are upset about a lack of specificity about how to spend the federal funds.

Edward M. Levin, who served on the committee representing Appleseed, a nonprofit public interest advocacy organization, said the preliminary plan "shows a serious commitment by the board to go beyond what HAVA requires."

"But we at Appleseed want more," he said. "We need a concise budget narrative."

This concern was echoed by Elinor Hart, who served on the committee representing the D.C. League of Women Voters.

"The members of the Planning Committee who are not on the Board of Elections staff had no opportunity to review and comment on the budget before it was made public, and the omission of this step shows," Hart said in a written statement. "We are so close to a great plan that it would be a shame not to put in the effort needed to make sure the plan lives up to its potential."

Bill O’Field, a spokesman for the Board of Elections and Ethics, said that concerns over the budget will be addressed. He said the board will release a "budget narrative" by July 18 and schedule another meeting "to discuss budget modifications."

One of the improvements that the plan calls for will be in updating the voter registration system. Once the system is updated, pollworkers will have instantaneous access to voter registration lists – a measure meant to improve security and efficiency. The board also plans to use funds to buy more voting machines in time for the presidential primary in January 2004.

Another major initiative in the plan is to "promote barrier-free voting for persons with disabilities."

"We will have at least one touch-screen system at every polling place so that the blind and hearing impaired will be able to vote," O’Field said.

The board also plans to improve pollworker training and recruitment. A consultant will be hired to develop a recruitment program, which will attempt to draw more pollworkers by placing announcements in print media and on radio and television. The plan anticipates raising D.C. pollworkers’ stipends to the national average.

The board also plans to hire a professional trainer to organize and run a "comprehensive pollworker training program." The program will likely include web-based training, a video and CD-ROM materials. The training will also cover the operation of the "Optech Eagle" and "Sequoia Edge DRE" voting machines.

The plan calls for the addition of three extra pollworkers at each precinct to answer questions and assist voters in using the voting machines.

According to the plan, the board’s Web site will be improved to "ensure it matches the quality of the best state and local election Web sites across the country." The plan also calls for sending out a voter education mailer, which will provide information about voting in the District. It would also include a copy of the District of Columbia’s Voters’ Rights Notice, as well as a voter registration card.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator