The Daily Star

Wed, Sep 05 2007 


Voting by lever may last till ’09


— By Tom Grace

Cooperstown News Bureau


Those venerable, affordable lever voting machines that were supposed to be retired a few years ago may register votes in New York state until 2009, according to Sheila Ross, Otsego County’s deputy Republican elections commissioner.


``The state Board (of Elections) has asked the county boards (of election) to write to our federal legislators and ask if we can use the lever machines next year,’’ Ross said Tuesday.


Otsego County’s letters to the state’s two senators, Democrats Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, and to Reps. Michael Arcuri, D-Utica, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-Hudson, went out late last week, she said.


The state is obliged to stop using lever machines by February, but state elections officials hope to have a federal bill, known in the House of Representatives as HR 811, amended to extend the deadline into 2009 or 2010.


Ross noted that the changeover from mechanical to electronic voting machines has been postponed many times since it was first mandated in 2002 by the federal Help America Vote Act. But even though many people are tired of the drawn-out process, 2008 would not be the best year to install new equipment and implement new procedures, she said.


``It’s already too late to do it for next year when the state hasn’t even certified which machines the counties can buy,’’ she said.


And in 2008, a presidential election year, more voters than usual are likely to cast ballots, starting Feb. 5 when New York holds its presidential primary.


Ross said it would make more sense to change machines in a less-pressured year.


The state Board of Elections is looking for a new company to test voting machines that manufacturers have built for use in New York, according to Robert Brehm, state Board of Elections spokesman.


``We had contracted with Cyber (Inc.), which had done a lot of the nation’s testing,’’ Brehm said.


But Cyber’s track record was poor, he said, and the state is seeking another testing laboratory.


The successor laboratory will be expected to assure that machines meet state and federal standards for accessibility, reliability and verifiability.


Ever since HAVA was passed, there have been two camps, each supporting different types of electronic voting machines: optical scanners and touch screens or direct-recording electronic machines. For a while, it seemed that most New York counties would opt for DREs, but that no longer is certain, Ross said.


Because New York state has been slow to adopt new equipment and federal rules, it was sued by the federal Justice Department and is now operating under a consent agreement in federal district court.


The court has mandated that each county in the state have a modern ballot-marking device that disabled people can use. Later this month, the court may rule that each county have many more of the devices, Ross said.


Ballot markers typically work with optical scanners, not DREs, which don’t require them. So, Ross said, the more the state invests in ballot markers, the more likely it may be to eventually have optical scanners at most polling stations.


Ross said Otsego County has one ballot marker in service, an $8,000 Avanti system at its office in Middlefield. In a recent election, this machine was used by one disabled person, she said.


``And the office staff here voted on it, too, to give that person some privacy,’’ she said.


Chris Zachmeyer, executive director of the Catskill Center for Independence, said the vote count on the Middlefield machine is not a true measure of the need for new equipment.


``People don’t want to go all the way to Middlefield to vote,’’ she noted.


Zachmeyer said she is disappointed in the slow pace of change as deadline after deadline is not met.


However, Brehm and David Grodsky, of Morris, a voting-rights advocate who has addressed the Otsego County Board of Representatives, said that being slow to change has its benefits.


``When you see the problems they’ve had with new equipment in other states, you realize it isn’t good to rush into this,’’ Brehm said.


State officials hope to learn from others’ mistakes when New York eventually changes equipment, he said.


Grodsky said he believes the delay will help those who believe scanners are far more trustworthy than DREs because scanners count original ballots marked by voters.


``The longer it takes, the more the word gets out on DREs,’’ he said, ``and that can only help us.’’


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