Nov. 30, 2007
By Cara Matthews
ALBANY — New technology is not the way to go when it comes to replacing New York's decades-old voting machines, more than 100 computer and social science professors advised state elections officials and lawmakers in a letter Thursday.
But state Board of Elections commissioners said Thursday that their job is to certify machines that meet New York's voting laws and not to favor one type of equipment over another. The two main types are ATM-style touch-screen machines and voting systems that allow voters to mark paper ballots by hand or with a ballot-marking device and have them scanned.
Also Thursday, elections commissioners learned that a state ethics law passed this year conflicts with its regulation that vendors applying for voting-machine contracts file regular reports to the state on their political contributions.
The professors, who teach at the State University of New York, Cornell University and about 20 other schools, argue that optical-scan systems are “more secure, reliable and auditable,” enjoy greater public confidence and are safer from tampering. Other states have purchased ATM-style machines, only to scrap them when there were problems with paper jams, missing votes and other flaws.
“The state's next generation voting system must be more accessible and more reliable. Fortunately, a viable and — in many ways — improved technology is available: optical scan,” wrote the professors, who worked with the New York Public Interest Research Group on the letter.
But state elections commissioners said that choice is not up to them.
“The Legislature made a policy decision that both scanning and direct-recording electronic (DRE) voting machines with a voter-verifiable paper audit trail could be used in New York State and the state board's job is simply to carry out the law to certify those machines that meet the standards...” said Doug Kellner, a state elections commissioner. “So it's not for us to say that scanners are better than DREs. The Legislature said that that decision is to be made by each of the county election officials.”
The Help America Vote Act, passed after the 2000 presidential election vote-counting fiasco, requires all states to modernize their election systems and provide machines that allow people with disabilities to cast votes without assistance.
New York, which received about $220 million in federal funds, is the last state to comply with the law. It was sued last year by the U.S. Department of Justice for not meeting the deadline to have new machines in place by January 2006. The federal agency and U.S. District Court gave an extension until this September, but New York missed that too. In court papers filed this month, the Justice Department said it was frustrated with what it sees as a continued lack of progress and wants New York to replace its 20,000 lever machines by September 2008. The state, which has to file a response by Dec. 14, wants until 2009.
Bo Lipari, executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said the state Board of Elections has the power and obligation to decide whether an ATM-style or optical-scan system is more appropriate. Not doing so would be an “abdication of their responsibility,” he said.
“It's a real, perhaps, conscious misunderstanding of what their mandate is,” Lipari said.
Neal Rosenstein, an election specialist with NYPIRG, agreed. He described the touch-screen machines as “nothing but trouble” and said optical-scan systems are cheaper.
“The law specifically says the state Board of Elections will decide what voting system will be put in place if an individual county deadlocks,” he said, adding that's bound to come up.
Rosenstein said civic groups have been speaking out against touch-screen machines for some time. Academics, particularly those in the computer and social sciences, should command a level of respect and attention, he said. The letter was sent to every county elections commissioner, state lawmaker and state elections commissioner, as well as Gov. Eliot Spitzer.
Premier Election Solutions, formerly known as Diebold Election Systems, produces both optical-scan and touch-screen voting equipment and there are “virtues” to each, said Chris Riggall, a spokesman for the company.
“Our posture is to offer to election officials and states and counties and other jurisdictions the kind of technology that works best for them and that they believe will best serve the needs of their voters,” he said.
But, he added, “There's no question that the national trend is shifting back to, if you will, optical scan.”
On the ethics issue, election commissioners passed a resolution acknowledging that the state law trumps agency regulations. The new legislation prohibits statewide elected officials, state officers and employees involved in awarding state grants or contracts from asking current or prospective vendors about political affiliation, political contributions and votes in elections. The agency will remove the campaign-finance requirement from its application process.
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