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Election Panel Tells States Money Will Be Coming    Story Here
$2.3 Billion to Be Disbursed for Voting Upgrades

Federal bureaucrats rarely find themselves besieged by state officials begging to be told what to do.

That was the position, however, in which the newly created Election Assistance Commission found itself at its public debut yesterday. After a drawn-out Senate confirmation process, the four-member commission came into existence last month and had a coming-out event yesterday at the National Association of Secretaries of State conference, despite the federal holiday.

Commission Chairman DeForest "Buster" Soaries Jr. told the states what they most wanted to hear: The commission has a speedy plan to distribute $2.3 billion for technology upgrades.

The 2002 Help America Vote Act required states to file plans to be published in the Federal Register before they could get their money. But without the commission, there was no one to do the publishing. Soaries said the commissioners intend to finish reading the plans by the end of February, send them for printing and have checks cut as soon as mid-May.

But the states don't just want money. They also want guidance on the thorniest problem in elections today, voting security. Touch-screen and other electronic voting seemed poised to sweep the nation after the 2000 Florida debacle prompted nationwide voting reform. But over the past year, concerns that began on the fringes have moved to the forefront about whether votes that are only recorded electronically can be trusted. Critics have called for a paper receipt verified by the voter that would be available for recounts, as well as audits to make sure voting computers weren't defective or tampered with.

Wyoming Secretary of State Joe Meyer voiced the paralysis gripping the states awaiting new guidelines: "I am scared to death to buy any machine without any direction," he told the commission yesterday.

Two weeks ago, the Pentagon scrapped plans to collect about 100,000 votes from overseas military and civilians via the Internet for the presidential election because of security concerns. Audits of voting-machine security in Ohio and Maryland have raised further questions. Various bills sponsored by Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) would mandate paper receipts or another means of proving computers recorded the votes correctly.

Soaries and his fellow commissioners vowed to tackle the issue but offered no specific guidance. Rushing to put standards into law before the commission does its work would undermine the process, Soaries said. He also maintained that critics and the media are blowing problems out of proportion.

"We have some flaws, but the truth is that the error rates are very small, with all technologies," he said. "Legislators are proposing solutions to a problem that doesn't exist. They're talking about 'What if?' scenarios."

The commission's first meeting is scheduled for March 23, but Soaries couldn't say where it will be.

"It's TBA, TBD, all of the initials that mean we just don't know. Wherever we meet, be assured that it will be free," he said.

His commission is using inherited space from the Federal Election Commission until it gets its own office space, maybe in April. The commission doesn't have its own phones or e-mail and is struggling to get up and running with its $1.2 million budget for this year.

Soaries, 52, a Baptist minister from Somerset, N.J., was secretary of state in New Jersey under then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. He is joined by Vice Chair Gracia Hillman, 54, former executive director of the League of Women's Voters; Paul DeGregorio, 51, former director of elections for St. Louis County, Mo.; and Ray Martinez, 39, a lawyer from Austin who served in the Clinton White House and Department of Health and Human Services. The commissioners make about $134,000 a year.

"We're a very diverse commission," Soaries said. "We have a Hispanic lawyer, an Italian administrator, an African American executive and a Baptist preacher."

The commission also has two Republicans, Soaries and DeGregorio, and two Democrats, Hillman and Martinez.

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