Litchfield County Times
By: Laurel Tuohy
The impending switch to electronic voting machines has been on the minds of town officials across the region lately, as the federally-mandated changeover takes effect in 2006.
The order states that the lever machines are banned in the 2006 federal elections, which means municipalities will have to replace all of their machines instead of just one per polling place as was originally thought.
Though the changeover is considered an unfunded mandate, $32.7 million has been secured for the state through the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which should, according to Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz, be enough to replace all 3,300 machines in the state.
However, town officials have not been made aware of the funding, nor has Connecticut received the funds yet. The changeover would have to be made by August, if there is a primary, and by November if there is not.
At a recent Northwestern Connecticut Council of Governments (NWCCOG) meeting, Canaan First Selectman Douglas Humes spoke about the voting machines and unfunded mandates in general. There is a feeling of dissatisfaction among local leaders about unfunded but mandated programs on both state and national levels. He suggested that the nine town leaders on the council band together to let the state know of their belief that the mandate should be paid for by the state or federal government.
In any case, Mr. Humes still believes in the old lever voting machines. "You know the old adage-if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he said.
One of the most frustrating aspects of the mandate is that no one seems sure of the cost of the machines or what will become of the discarded machines. Mr. Humes had heard the estimate of $20,000 per voting machine.
But Mrs. Bysiewicz said they are not that expensive, and the price goes down as machines are purchased in volume. She said they might be purchased for as little as $3,000 each, or as much as $10,000. Another reason there is so much ambiguity about the price is because the state hasn't decided which of three styles it will go with. Two of the three proposed machines feature ATM style touch screens. The third is similar to the lever style, but with buttons instead of a pull lever.
Sharon First Selectman Malcolm Brown had the opportunity to vote by using one of the ATM style electronic machines in the last election. He described the experience as easy, noting that the TV-style touch screen is large, about 24-by-24 inches, bright and about waist-high.
"I have my doubts" about the need for them, he said. "From what I understand, old-fashioned lever voting machines are quite accurate and reliable."
Mrs. Bysiewicz said that the two main reasons for the change are to accommodate voters with disabilities and to create a paper trail should something go awry as it has in recent elections.
"There is a paper receipt that comes from all the new machines," explained Mrs. Bysiewicz. "It looks like a cash register receipt; after you vote you can see who you voted for. You leave the receipt in a lock box." It's a way for voters to feel confident that their vote is cast in the way they intended and to quell fears about hacking and security.
"I think one thing that people may not fully appreciate is the fact that in our state we have 200,000 people with disabilities," Mrs. Bysiewicz said. "That statistic comes from the Office of Protection and Advocacy. There are over 200,000 people in our state that do not participate in elections because they cannot vote privately and independently.
"I know that there are towns that are set in their ways and would like to keep doing things the way they've always been doing things, but our federal government and Congress has said it's extremely important for people with disabilities to be able to vote privately and independently," she continued. "So we are very hopeful that 200,000 more people are going to participate in our voting process. Right now, we have two million registered voters. If we had 200,000 more, that'd be huge."
She recalled an anecdote from the electronic voting demonstration in 2003 in her hometown of Middletown: A man who was "40 years old and blind, was ahead of me in line and for the first time he was able to go into a booth, put on headphones and vote without having someone assist him [and] see how he voted. He had his privacy. He was able to vote in the very same way as a sighted person and he was excited. He was talking to television reporters. That's what we have to keep in mind is accessibility for people with disabilities and, in light of the 2000 and 2004 presidential election irregularities, it is really important to have a paper trail and the bottom line is, our lever voting machines do not have a paper trail, and the new machines will and that should give voters confidence."
She recounted lever-machine snafus as well, saying, "For example, in Bridgeport in one of their recent municipal elections, three council candidates were posted at a polling place for the entire day. At the end of the evening, when they opened the machines, not a single vote was cast-for any of the candidates."
Another thing to take into account is that the lever machines aren't manufactured anymore. If one is faulty, replacing it is not an option. But, said Mrs. Bysiewicz, "The bottom line is that we now have a new federal civil rights law that says the machines have to have a paper audit trail and have to be accessible to people with disabilities. So that's what this is all about. I understand the concern and the fear of unfunded mandates, but it is my job as the chief elections official to make sure that our state complies with federal civil rights law because this is the most important civil rights law since the national voting rights act of 1965."
The fate of the old machines is not yet known. Mrs. Bysiewicz thinks the state may see if other countries or organizations that have elections, such as unions, might want them.
"Our goal is to choose a new machine by the end of the year, place the order and deliver them by spring or early summer and do the training then," she said.
Despite the secretary of the state's confidence that all will turn out well, officials in the Northwest Corner remain cautious.
Mr. Humes' take on the situation is that the state will pay for one machine and each town has to buy the rest. In Canaan's case, according to the registrar of voters, they need three machines. "It was everyone's understanding at the meeting that the state was only going to pay for one machine," he said, asking, "Why put the burden on taxpayers for something that doesn't have a proven track record?"
Cornwall First Selectman Gordon Ridgway added, "We're mostly worried about the need to change. It seems like a bit of a folly. We are satisfied with the reliability of the machines we have now, and though we are keeping a relatively open mind, they haven't settled on what technology they are going to use yet. ... . In this day and age when we are counting pennies, to spend millions on something that's probably not necessary rubs people the wrong way. I'd rather put it into giving computers to the kids at school-put it somewhere it's needed. Plus, these things haven't been proven. It seems like we are rushing into something we don't need to rush into."
Mr. Ridgway also raises a point that is especially valid in the Northwest Corner, where residents are a bit older. "Not everyone is comfortable with this stuff. It is assumed that everyone is techno-savvy and it isn't necessarily true." The lever machines have been used since the 1930s.
©Litchfield County Times 2005
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