Elmira Star Gazette


Opinion for Tuesday 3/29/05


How we will vote


N.Y. lawmakers should offer optical-scan mode as choice for local governments.


New York legislators face more than a budget deadline. Time also is running out on them to make a decision about new voting machines to replace the state's 20,000 lever-style dinosaurs now in use.


If lobbyists for the voting-machine companies have their way, the lawmakers will be smooth-talked into high-priced, touch-screen equipment that looks and feels high-tech but carries liabilities.


A better alternative, in voting security, cost and ease of storage, would be the optical-scan systems that have been used safely and successfully for the past 20 years in a number of states. Oklahoma, for instance, has all but one of its 3,000 optical-scan machines still in operation after 15 years, says Bo Lipari, an Alpine resident and director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting.


Lipari, too, is lobbying the Legislature but not with the big bucks of his competitors. His group likes the optical scan because it allows voters to mark a paper ballot, much like a lottery ticket, and have it scanned right after they vote. Mismarked ballots get kicked back, allowing voters to correct mistakes. And the obvious advantage: a paper copy for disputed votes or recounts.


Touch screens cost twice as much as optical scans and can come equipped with paper receipts, but they also can malfunction or be immobilized by power failures.


Under the Help America Vote Act, New York is supposed to make up its mind on voting machines in time for the fall 2006 elections, and lawmakers already are working on borrowed time, Lipari points out.


The federal government covers about 95 percent of the purchase price of the first batch of machines for counties, but maintenance and future placement costs are up to counties. That fact ought to make optical scans an easy choice for local governments. They cost half of touch screens, last longer and require simpler storage.


At best, lawmakers should require the optical scan statewide, but at least, they should give counties a choice. In Chemung, for example, the optical scan would be $531,880 cheaper. In Steuben, the savings is $335,640, according to New Yorkers for Verified Voting.


In less populous counties, such as Schuyler and Tioga, the savings run between $14,000 and $16,000. That's because each voting precinct in the state will require at least one touch-screen version for disabled voters who cannot fill in the paper ballot.


In more populous counties, one scanner can handle several voting precincts in one building, as opposed to one touch-screen per precinct. And then there's the storage dilemma. The touch-screens have to be stored in temperature-controlled rooms. The optical scans require less pampering.


Scan machines make more sense for cash-strapped counties. They also make sense for voters, who deserve the peace of mind that their vote has been counted and noted on a nonelectronic record. For lawmakers, this really should be a simple choice. The optical-scan ought to be their pick, but if not, at least a local option.



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