The Ithaca Journal - Ithaca, NY

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Lifton among those calling for switch to optical scanner voting

By Dan Wiessner

Gannett News Service


ALBANY — Lawmakers and voting advocates Tuesday renewed their call for New York to adopt a single statewide system of using paper-ballot-scanning voting machines.


Assemblywomen Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, and Barbara Lifton, D-125th Dist., have introduced a bill that would follow more than a dozen states in implementing the optical-scanner system, which they said is cheaper and more reliable than ATM-style touch screen machines, or DREs.


“It is clear from troubling reports from around the country that DREs are not accurately recording votes and do not have the transparency and accountability we need in our elections,” Lifton said. “The only system to assure that accountability is the optical-scanner with the original paper ballot marked by the voter.”


New York has lagged behind other states in complying with the Help America Vote Act, a measure passed by the federal government in 2002 that aimed to curb voting problems brought to light during the 2000 presidential election in Florida. The mandate required states to put more reliable machines in place by September of last year, which New York failed to do. That resulted in a loss of $50 million in federal money.


The state has two main options for new voting equipment, with the decision currently resting with the county election boards. Touch-screen machines store votes on a microchip and leave no separate paper trail. [Note: New York requires touchscreens to print a voter-verifiable paper trail, which activists call a second-hand record of the votes which many voters will be unable to verify accurately due to time limitations, in contrast to the first-hand voter-marked paper ballots used with scanner systems.] Optical scanners scan hand-marked paper ballots and record the vote tally. But the state Board of Elections must first certify which machines counties can choose from.


Election officials have blamed the state's delay on its unmatched standards for testing the machines, coupled with the shortcomings of competing machine manufacturers. Ciber, the company that tests the machines, has recently been decried as being unqualified, putting the process of machine certification on hold. [Clarification: Ciber has been banned from testing by the federal EAC, not "decried," and as a result all testing of new equipment in New York State has been stopped.]


But optical-scan advocates said Tuesday that the delay has worked to the state's advantage. There have been hundreds of reports from around the country of machines — usually touch-screens — malfunctioning. In Florida's Sarasota County, 18,000 votes were lost in a tight congressional race last fall.


Now many states, including Florida, are getting rid of the touch-screens and purchasing optical scanners.


“New York must avoid the expensive mistakes made by other states who have invested millions in failed touch-screen voting technology,” said Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, an advocacy group. “The Legislature must do the right thing and require paper ballots and optical scanners.”


The Assembly bill would take the choice out of the hands of county election commissioners and impose the optical-scan system across the state. The lawmakers said that having a uniform system is crucial to running fair elections.


The percentage of votes missing after an election or votes counted multiple times — called undervotes and overvotes, respectively — changes depending on the machine, said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx.


“Each county's votes must be counted in the same manner, with a real paper trail to back it up,” he said.


But the Republican-led Senate has supported local control over the decision. A spokesman didn't immediately return a call Tuesday seeking an explanation.


Officials at the state Board of Elections are concerned that optical scanners may require time-consuming recounts of paper ballots and that the ballots may cost up to $1.50 each. [Correction: If you have a sweetheart deal with your printer you can pay as much as you like, but Oklahoma pays 10 cents per ballot, and activists have gathered many quotes from ballot-printers for an average of 30 cents per ballot. Regardless of the equipment selected, state law requires County Boards of Elections to count 3% of the votes on paper (either the hard-to-handle paper trail from touchscreens, or the easy-to-handle ordinary paper ballots used with optical scanner systems.]


But Aimee Allaud, a voting expert with the League of Women Voters, said that at least one state — Michigan — spends about 25 cents per ballot.


“This is not an expensive system, but the election commissioners haven't even looked at other state's expenses,” she said.


She added that optical scanners cost about $1,000 less than touch-screen machines and each precinct would need only one, as opposed to having several DREs.


In Tompkins County, the Board of Elections must first wait for a machine to be certified, said Stephen M. DeWitt, the Democratic election commissioner, before ordering any voting machines.


“Before we can purchase anything the state has to certify that they can be used,” he said. “Until they can do that, we're not going to make any decisions.”


Originally published February 14, 2007