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Lawmakers consider changes to voting machines


By Tom Grace

Cooperstown News Bureau


State legislators are trying to resolve how New York will comply with the federal Help America Vote Act, but they have not decided which kind of voting machine residents will use.


The state Senate and Assembly have passed different bills pertaining to HAVA, and a joint conference committee is trying to bridge the gap between them, said state Sen. John Flanagan, R-Northport, chairman of the state Senate Elections Committee.


"I think we’re getting close in a number of areas, and I would hope we’d have an announcement next week," he said Thursday. "People on both sides know that delays can cause massive problems."


One problem is that the state would forfeit $150 million in aid from the federal government, he said.


To comply with HAVA deadlines, the state must have a computerized database of voters in place by Jan. 1, he said. The state also must establish a procedure for voters to lodge complaints about election procedures and agree on which forms of identification voters will need at the polls.


On the first two counts, the Senate and Assembly are close, Flanagan said, but on the third, voter identification, they are more divided.


Still to be decided is whether the state will opt for touch-screen voting machines or optical scanners, which scan and tally paper ballots, he said.


State Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, said Thursday, "I can’t tell you which way we’re going to go, but I think there is quite a bit of support for optical scanners."


With these devices, voters mark paper ballots directly, then feed them into a machine that records the results. The paper ballots become the ballots of record and can be recounted if results are disputed.


The New York Times attempted to prod the Legislature toward this choice, publishing an editorial recently that stated in part:


"Optical-scan machines produce a better paper record than touch-screen machines, because it is one the voter has actually filled out, not a receipt that the voter must check for accuracy. Optical-scan machines are also far cheaper than touch-screens. Their relatively low cost will be welcomed by taxpayers, of course, but it also has a direct impact on elections. Because touch-screen machines are so expensive, localities are likely to buy too few, leading to long lines at the polls.


"The big voting-machine companies, which are well-connected politically, are aggressively pushing touch-screen voting. These ATM-style machines make a lot of sense for the manufacturers because they are expensive and need to be replaced frequently. But touch-screen machines are highly vulnerable to being hacked or maliciously programmed to change votes. And they cost far more than voting machines should."


According to Sheila Ross, Otsego County’s Republican deputy elections commissioner, touch-screen machines that produce a paper record cost between $8,000 and $9,000 apiece. However, Ross noted that these machines have advantages, such as ease of use for people with disabilities and a decreased reliance on paper, which can be cumbersome and heavy to transport.


Optical scanners can cost slightly more, but one scanner can service several voting booths, making it a far less-expensive technology for most municipalities to employ, Will Doherty, executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said Thursday afternoon.


Doherty said optical scanners are more reliable than touch-screen machines and come with devices to help people who are blind or otherwise disabled. They require paper ballots, an expense at every election, but touch-screen machines also need paper ballots as backup for people to use when the machines fail, he said.


Christine Zachmeyer, director of the Catskill Center For Independence in Oneonta, said she has heard that optical scanners are accessible for people with disabilities.


"We’ve had good reports," she said Friday.


But she has been unable to test one, although she has tried to, she said. She added that the manufacturers of voting machines, including optical scanners, should make their equipment widely available so it can be tested publicly and people can see which models are most accessible and offer the best value.


Flanagan said he is keeping an open mind and wants to have a system that is accessible and accurate.



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