By Scott S. Greenberger, Globe Staff, 8/2/2003
Mayor Thomas M. Menino has signed a $1.5 million contract to buy new optical-scan voting machines, but city councilors and voting rights advocates, who want the city to choose more advanced, touch-screen technology, are fighting a last-ditch effort to derail the purchase.
It is unclear whether Boston can delay or change its decision. But at a City Council hearing yesterday, several councilors vented frustrations, questioning why the city's elections department didn't consult the body on how to replace the 900-pound lever machines Boston has used since 1946.
"We as a council didn't seem to have a role," Councilor Felix Arroyo said after a civil rights lawyer ticked off the supposed advantages of touch-screen machines. "I'm troubled that some of those recommendations may come too late."
The administration sent a letter to councilors on July 14 informing them of its decision to buy the optical scanners. Councilors siad they never got a chance to vote on the change, but administration officials said the council was adequately informed.
The optical scanning system, which is used by most Massachusetts cities, requires voters to fill in circles on a paper ballot, in the same way that answers are selected on SAT exams. Their votes are then tallied by the optical scanner, which reads the filled-in circles. Boston plans to purchase 265 "AccuVote" systems from Diebold Election Systems of North Canton, Ohio, and roll them out in time for the Sept. 23 preliminary election. The machines cost about $6,000 each.
Nancy Lo, who heads the elections department, told the council that federal and state regulations forced the city to go with the optical scanners. A new federal law, approved in response to the Florida presidential election debacle in 2000, requires cities and states to replace lever and punch-card machines with optical scanners or the touch-screen system in time for the 2004 presidential election. In Massachusetts, Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin hasn't approved the use of the touch-screen machines, so Boston had to choose the optical scanners, Lo said.
Not every councilor is upset about that choice: Council president Michael Flaherty endorsed the decision yesterday, saying, "It is the right time for the city of Boston to go down this road."
Representatives from Diebold, which sells both systems, told the council that Boston was better off with the optical scanners. John Sylvestro, president of the company, said the optical scanning system reduces lines at polling places and helps preserve the integrity of elections by leaving a paper "audit trail." He also said the touch-screen system would cost the city about six times as much money, and that companies like his are still working the kinks out of the touch-screen machines, a newer technology.
But Silvestro acknowledged that the optical scanning approach can present problems for the visually impaired and people whose hands tremble because they have had a stroke or have Parkinson's disease. The touch-screen system comes with headphones for blind people.
Critics of the optical scanners have seized on that disadvantage. They have also argued that the touch-screen machines would be better suited to an increasingly multilingual city, since it would be relatively easy and inexpensive to present the instructions on the screen in many different languages. Using an optical-scanner system, Boston would have to print ballots in each language. Furthermore, they contend that the city doesn't have enough time to adequately educate voters about the new system before the Sept. 23 preliminary election.
Nadine Cohen of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights pointed out that the new federal law allows cities and states to delay purchasing new voting equipment unitl 2005. She also suggested that the city could face a voting rights challenge.
"The majority of states that have gone to the new technology have gone to touch screens," Cohen said. "I think we're a little behind the times here."
Scott S. Greenberger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story ran on page B5 of the Boston Globe on 8/2/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.
Copyright 2003 New York Times Company
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