Unanimous vote for scanners, paper ballots - NYC Council runs from the idea of elections using electronic touch screen voting
By Helen Klein
Brooklynite Florence Suggs held up a sign.
The New York City Council has overwhelmingly declared its preference for optical scanners and paper ballots to replace the city’s venerable lever voting machines which must be retired under federal law.
On March 14th, councilmembers voted unanimously by voice vote to approve Resolution 131, whose prime sponsor was Brooklyn Councilmember Charles Barron.
The resolution, which is non-binding, urges the city’s Board of Elections to eschew touch screen computer voting (DREs, or direct recording electronic) in favor of optical scan technology both because it is more user-friendly and because it is more secure.
“This is a very good day for us,” remarked Barron. “We’re making history, saying to America and the state and the city that every vote counts. The cornerstone of democracy is to ensure that every vote is counted. If we get a new technology, it has to be voter-friendly and reliable. That’s what the paper ballot does. It’s voter-friendly and it can’t be manipulated as easily by the powers-that-be.”
While the resolution does not have the force of law, it does “express the political will of the city,” averred Barron. “It will put pressure on the commissioners at the Board of Elections, also the state, to do the right thing. It’s a very important resolution. It may not be legally binding, but it represents what eight million people in New York City want to see. I think it’s going to be very hard for the commissioners to go against that.”
The legislation is the first of its kind, according to Teresa Hommel, the chairperson of the Task Force on Election Integrity of the Community Church of New York
“This legislation is leading the country,” she remarked. “New York City is the first major city in the United States and the City Council is the first legislative body of a huge city in the United States to say, we don’t want electronic voting.”
It also covers new ground in identifying the issue at the heart of the debate, said Hommel. Pointing out that the resolution states that, “Public confidence in the outcome of elections depends on voting technology that is easy to use and enables citizens to observe, understand, and attest to the reliable and secure handling of votes,” Hommel stressed, “What makes elections secure is that people can watch. The City Council gets it.”
The issue is a pressing one, because New York State is required to replace its old voting machines under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed in 2002 in the wake of the controversial 2000 presidential election.
As the last state in the union not to have complied with HAVA, New York is under orders from the federal Department of Justice to replace its old lever machines with machines that comply with HAVA’s requirements — that voting machines be handicapped-accessible and recountable, and provide a second chance to vote, in case of error — by the September primary.
To that end, the state’s Board of Elections has been testing and evaluating systems that local boards of elections can choose among. New York City’s Board of Elections will choose the system for the entire city.
The members of the City Council, Hommel emphasized, speaking to a crowd gathered on the steps of City Hall, “Understand that it’s not a question of whether computers are secure or not. It’s a matter of whether citizens can watch the procedures that take place with the ballot, because if people can’t watch or don’t understand what they are watching, then you never know whether the election was honest or not.
“You can’t put it in a computer, because that hides it,” Hommel contended. “That shuts the people out It’s about democracy. There is no right for government to hand you a secure election. What there is, is a right for citizens to watch and make it secure.”
While computer voting was at first hailed as an advance that would eliminate such problems as hanging chads that have cast shadows over elections in the past, since many states have rushed to purchase DREs, other issues have arisen that have cast into doubt the efficiency and integrity of the touch screen voting machines.
These have ranged from the lack of a paper trail to lost or miscounted votes, and include the concern that the software running the machines is proprietary, with only the company that developed it able to know exactly what is going on inside the voting machines.
More advanced technology is not necessarily superior, noted Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). Rosenstein noted that, on the same afternoon that the City Council would be voting to support optical scan technology for voting machines, they would also be voting to ban metal bats in high school baseball games.
“The Council is saying no to modern new technology that makes balls travel faster,” Rosenstein remarked. “What the Council realized is that they are not safe and the best way to conduct a baseball game, that wood is best. We’re saying the same thing, that paper is best.”
Mary Lou Urban, of the League of Women Voters, told the crowd that the touch screen voting machines are tougher to understand. Her organization’s “mission,” she stressed, “is to make voting booths as uncomplicated as possible,” which is why they have come out in favor of optical scanners. “They don’t seem to confuse people, and hopefully we will get a bigger turnout,” Urban remarked. “People won’t get confused by all the things they don’t see.”
Optical scan technology is less likely to disenfranchise voters, opined City Councilmember Darlene Mealy, who stopped by to speak to the crowd gathered on the City Hall steps. “We’re already disenfranchised with voting almost now, with voter intimidation,” Mealy remarked.
At least one councilmember spoke fondly of the old lever machines. City Councilmember Simcha Felder said that he believed that optical scanners were the better of the two options that were currently being considered, but that both leave something to be desired.
“I don’t believe that any of the systems being proposed are good,” he remarked. “We’re in a very precarious situation, having to be compliant with HAVA and making sure that people who are disabled are able to vote as easily as anyone else, but knowing that we’ve had these machines that are great.
“We’re solving one problem and really creating havoc otherwise,” Felder went on. “It’s a horrible choice, but the better one is paper ballots. At least it comes close to the older system. But, I’m afraid the average senior is going to go in to the voting booth and have a panic attack. We’re expecting people who have voted perhaps for the past 60 years, pulling a lever, to suddenly be taught how to eat chicken soup a new way.”
Computer touch screen voting is also more costly than optical scan technology with paper ballots. According to statistics provided by Hommel, the cost of DREs can be as high as $106 to $132 million, while the optical scanning equipment will cost in the neighborhood of $35 to $38 million.
Under HAVA, New York will get either $53 or $72 million worth of federal funding to put to the purchase of new voting machines, if it meets the federal deadlines.
Lower estimates of cost for the DREs produced by those who favor touch screen voting rely on buying fewer pieces of equipment, say verified voting advocates, who warn that buying fewer voting machines could mean longer lines at the polls, as voters experienced in Ohio during the 2004 presidential election.
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