The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
(October 28, 2007) — ALBANY — As the state inches toward compliance with a five-year-old federal election-modernization law, it will be a few more years before the average New Yorker is faced with anything but a stalwart lever machine that ushered numerous generations into the ranks of the voting public.
Like last year, there will be a limited number of machines in each county designed so people with disabilities can vote independently. Whether counties will have to greatly expand the availability of equipment next year is a subject being debated by the state and county boards of election and the U.S. Department of Justice, which has sued New York for missing deadlines set by federal law.
For all voters, major changes will come in the form of new machines two years from now — seven years after federal lawmakers passed the Help America Vote Act to upgrade voting equipment, ensure that people with disabilities could cast ballots without assistance and create statewide voter databases.
HAVA was Congress' answer to preventing repeats of the vote-counting fiascos in the 2000 presidential election. The law provided about $3 billion to states. Most of New York's $220 million will go toward replacing its 20,000 lever voting machines.
From the beginning, New York has lagged behind every other state in HAVA compliance, and elections officials recently admitted that it would likely be 2009 — three years after the deadline — before the state's modernized election system would be ready.
One thing elections officials and voting-rights advocates agree on is New York has learned from other states' mistakes by waiting so long. Modern voting machines — ATM-style touch-screen equipment in particular — have not lived up to their promise. Problems with machine malfunctions, security concerns and human error in operating them have prompted numerous states to trash their new equipment and start over.
"Our objective is to do it and do it right the first time and not waste taxpayer money," said Thomas Ferrarese, Monroe County's Democratic elections commissioner.
New York has met HAVA's requirement to have a statewide voter database. The complete database, which allows county boards to make their own updates, has been running for a few weeks, state Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian said. Starting in mid-October, people will be able to check their registration online because of the database, Daghlian said. That will save time and prevent Election Day confusion, he said.
"Many people ask county boards and us if they're registered. They forget .... This will just make it easier," he said.
The state was ordered to have an interim system in place last year for voters with disabilities, and that will continue this year.
Temporary machines have to include features to accommodate different types of disabilities, for example, audio voting for people who are blind, and raised buttons of different colors or light-pressure switches for people with limited hand dexterity or reach.
Just how many interim machines should be available has been a source of controversy. Last year, each county had to have at least one. The same is true this year. For 2008, though, the Democrats on the state Board of Elections want one per polling place, and the Republicans want more but think one per polling site is excessive.
County officials are concerned they could shell out several thousand dollars per machine, then have to scrap them if they are not on the list of approved machines for 2009 and beyond. Implementing the "partial and costly interim measure" would compromise county boards' ability to manage elections and "create the conditions of catastrophic failure" in the 2008 elections, the New York Election Commissioners' Association said in a recent letter to the state board.
For the most part, the interim machines were few and far between in 2006 and they weren't advertised enough, said Mike Godino of Nassau County, president of the American Council for the Blind in the state. Another problem, Godino said, is ballots cast on the ballot-marking device were treated like absentee ballots and were not counted on election night. That's a form of disenfranchisement, he said.
"I won't vote on a paper ballot unless they're going to sit and count it that night," he said.
Counties reported limited use of the ballot-marking devices for voters with disabilities in 2006. In Broome County, five voters used the special machine. In Monroe County, a total of about 30 people used the two machines in the primary and 80 in the general election, Ferrarese said.
While the debate over machines for the disabled continues, the state board expects to have a new company in place by January to certify new machines.
Counties will choose from the list, and they will need time to train workers and educate voters before the 2009 elections.
New York had to suspend testing of machines in January because of problems with a vendor.
Bo Lipari, executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said the disagreement over machines for the disabled puts the state at risk for a court mandate.
"The court may impose a solution that really is not in the best interest of the state," he said.
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