County may petition to stick with levers


By John Mason

Hudson-Catskill Newspapers



Robert Ragaini/Hudson-Catskill Newspapers

Lever voting machines may be around a little longer in Columbia County.


COLUMBIA COUNTY - Archimedes asked only for a lever and a place to stand, and he would move the world.


The Columbia County Board of Elections last week seconded that motion, saying in effect, who needs touch screens, optical scanners or paper ballots, when good, old levered voting machines beat any other electoral technology known to the franchised world.


A resolution asking that levered voting machines continue to be used in New York state will be considered by the Board of Supervisors at its Feb. 11 meeting.


The resolution, which is addressed to the state Legislature and Board of Elections, passed the board's County Government Committee unanimously Tuesday. The idea behind it is that the electronic ballot marking devices would continue to be available for disabled voters and others wishing to use them, while most voters would continue to use the levered machines.


Under the state's Election Reform and Modernization Act of 2005, levered machines would be prohibited and would have to be replaced by computerized voting systems, either touch-screen or optical scanners.


In her agenda for the meeting, Democratic Election Commissioner Virginia Martin summed up concerns the county Board of Elections has with the optical scan machines that the county would use under ERMA.


The machines, she stated:


n Have not been certified by New York state and are unlikely to be certified in time for fall elections.


n Do not have a track record of successful use, as do the levered machines.


n Would require the county to spend "considerable sums, well in excess of $50,000 at the minimum in 2009 alone, and many thousands of dollars each subsequent year they are employed, sums that are far above the cost that would be incurred by the continued use of our lever machines."


n Do not provide the transparency of the voting process that levered machines do.


n Are not required by the Help America Vote Act.


The resolution calls on the state to reverse ERMA, notes that Columbia County has successfully used lever-style machines for many decades, declares their continued use to be in the best interest of the public and says their required elimination is "unnecessary, inappropriate and costly to ... county taxpayers."


A similar resolution was passed by the Dutchess County Legislature in December 2008. This has occurred as dissatisfaction with the electronic machines, which have been adopted in every state but New York, has been growing.


Martin told the Register-Star she heard that Pennsylvania is going back to levered machines, and that Los Angeles County is switching from electronic machines to paper ballots.


"The New York State Board of Elections has set very high standards for computerized voting machines," she said. "Sequoia [the voting machine manufacturer] is hopeful the machine will be certified. The problems the testers are finding are with the software and documentation. There are those who believe computerized voting is not hack-proof."


A lawsuit by New York Voters for Open, Transparent, Electoral Reliability and Security challenges the constitutionality of ERMA.


Having levered machines and ballot-marking devices for disabled voters is enough to put New York in compliance with HAVA, Martin said. "ERMA is the only problem."


Supervisor John Musall, D-Hudson1, asked if it was true that lever machine manufacturers were going out of business, meaning there would be no parts, and Supervisor Phil Williams, D-Livingston, said he had heard a new startup would be making the parts.


The measure passed unanimously with little discussion.


In 2008, the county complied with HAVA by purchasing 52 Sequoia Imagecast optical scan and ballot marking devices at the cost of close to $600,000. Ninety-five percent of the costs were borne by New York state, meaning the county ponied up $28,000.


Supervisor Doug McGivney, D-Kinderhook, said Sequoia "is in breach of contract," and the county should get the money back.


The optical scanning devices have still not been certified by the state, and McGivney said Sequoia hasn't paid into the escrow account; without the escrow, the state can't expend any funds testing the machines to certify them.


In addition to the resolution going before the supervisors, McGivney is also presenting a resolution to the New York Association of Towns Resolution Committee. Both resolutions would go to the county's state legislators.


Rhinebeck's Andi Novick, of Northeast Citizens for Responsible Media, has been corresponding with Bryan Pfaffenberger, a professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia. He's working on a book, "Machining the Vote," on the history of the lever machines.


In an e-mail to Novick, Pfaffenberger wrote, "In my analysis, the lever machine deserves recognition as one of the most astonishing achievements of American technological genius, a fact that is reflected in their continued competitiveness against recent voting technologies in every accepted performance measure.


"With as many as 28,000 parts, their mechanisms reflect an agonizingly difficult period of development, spanning more than twenty years, 1888 to 1919, in which interlocking mechanisms had to be developed that were capable of dealing with the enormous complexity and variety of American elections," Pfaffenberger stated. "The result was a machine that captures in its immutable mechanical operations the voting rules that the American people, in their wisdom, developed in order to capture the will of the people ...


"In New York, the people, in their wisdom, created a system of election administration and a technology that solved the characteristic problems of American elections," he wrote. "To abandon lever machines for new technologies that will not gain voter confidence and, at the same time, re-introduce paper audit trails or paper ballots which have long proven to be prone to election fraud, amounts in my opinion to a potentially disastrous mistake."


To reach reporter John Mason, call 518-828-1616, ext. 2272, or e-mail