The Ithaca Journal


Election official advocates voting reform

By Rebecca Lerner

Special to The Journal


ITHACA — Standing in front of a packed Cornell University lecture hall Saturday night, Florida election official Ion Sancho argued passionately that voting-machine reform is critical to the integrity of the democratic process in New York state and the nation.


“American politics is as polarized as it has ever been. In this kind of environment, you have people who will do anything to win,” said Sancho, who led a recount of the ballots in the dispute in Miami-Dade County during the 2000 presidential election.


Sancho was invited to speak by the fair-election advocacy group New Yorkers for Verified Voting, a nonpartisan organization. Sancho has become a kind of folk hero around the country for his work in demonstrating the ease with which high-tech voting machines can malfunction due to software bugs and deliberate hacking. In 2006, Sancho was featured in the award-winning HBO documentary “Hacking Democracy.”


“Nobody has done as much to challenge the common wisdom,” said Bo Lipari, executive director of NYVV. “He really is unique among election officials around the nation.”


Sancho's visit comes at a pivotal juncture in New York state voting reform. The state Board of Elections is in the midst of determining which kind of voting machines to approve for counties to choose from in 2008 as part of a mandate by the state Legislature's Election Reform and Modernization Act of 2005.


The state faces increasing pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice, which sued Albany in federal court last year over New York's delay in complying with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. The act gave the state $221 million in funding to make its voting machines accessible to people with disabilities, among other requirements.


Advocates for people with disabilities say the lever machines long used by the state pose physical problems for voters in wheelchairs, the blind and the mobility impaired.


In their place, the state is facing a choice between the popular electronic touch-screen devices and optical scanners with ballot-marking machines, which produce a printed paper ballot. Both types of machines can be outfitted with such accessibility-enhancing features as audio menus for the blind and breath-activated ballot-marking for the mobility-impaired.


Lipari's group, as well as New York Public Interest Group, the League of Women Voters and the organization Common Cause endorse optical scanner/ballot-marking devices instead of touch-screen machines because, they say, a paper trail offers greater accountability than electronic devices do.


“We have no way to verify that the contents of the (touch-screen) electronic ballot accurately reflects the intention of the voter. The software could be buggy and could be easily hacked,” Lipari said.


“It's very important that we make the right choice. So many states have adopted touch-screen devices and have come to regret it,” Lipari added.


Ithaca resident Fay Gougakis, a community activist who's “still not over being upset” about the 2000 presidential election, said Sancho's talk left her feeling positive about the state's delay in complying with the Help America Vote Act.


“It's a good thing that we're taking our time. We have to get the best system possible,” Gougakis said. “Right now, what I'm hearing is that optical scanners are the best. But the other concern I have is having a system that is universal. I want the whole country to have the same system.”


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