http://www.nydailynews.com/03-09-2005/news/ideas_opinions/story/288160p-246677c.html

New York Daily News - http://www.nydailynews.com

 

Put polling machines to a vote

 

By Bill Hammond, a columnist for the New York Daily News.

 

Wednesday, March 9th, 2005

 

ALBANY - Like pushy car dealers, industry reps for voting machines are hawking top-of-the-line cream puffs with lots of bells and whistles here while keeping their economy models under wraps. Unless lawmakers smarten up in a hurry, voters across the state could get stuck with expensive lemons.

 

With the state facing a federal deadline to modernize its polling booths, the manufacturers are touting ATM-like machines with push-buttons and "touch screens." These devices are easy to use and 100% accurate - if you trust them, that is.

 

They run on software that's vulnerable to glitches, and the only paper record is generated by the machines themselves. Critics call them black boxes because voters have no way to know whether the machine has correctly tallied their choices.

 

The low-tech alternative is to use paper ballots - which voters fill out, SAT-style, with a No. 2 pencil - and count them with optical scanners. If these machines screw up, officials can always count the original ballots by hand.

 

Scanners cost about $5,000 a pop, about $3,000 less than a touch-screen machine. Since New York needs to replace 20,000 machines, the savings would approach $60million.

 

All the major companies offer both types of equipment, and they deny promoting one technology over another. But they mysteriously avoid making the cheaper equipment available for inspection. At the Capitol recently, a lobbyist managed to shut down a demonstration of optical scanning by getting his client to pull its machine from the display.

 

Assemblywoman Sandra Galef of Westchester called the company to object and was told that New York is "a touch-screen state."

 

"I said, 'We are?'" Galef recalled. "I'm a legislator. I don't think I've voted on anything."

 

"Why are the vendors deciding what type of state New York State should be?" asks Bo Lipari of Ithaca, a retired software engineer who founded New Yorkers for Verified Voting. "We ought to be able to look at all our alternatives and make a rational choice."

 

The danger is that the small army of lobbyists working this issue, who collected almost $1 million in fees last year, will succeed in wagging the dog - and win their clients much fatter contracts.

 

One manufacturer, Sequoia Voting Systems, finally let its optical scan machine see the light of day yesterday at a demonstration in Madison County. But it might be too little too late. Albany must make its decision in a hurry - in time for the equipment to be up and running next year - or lose $220 million in federal funding.

 

Capitol Stuff: Attorney General Eliot Spitzer inched out of the closet on the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit during an online chat this weekend. In court, the state's chief lawyer has argued that the schools already have plenty of money. But the Dem candidate for Gov. Pataki's seat now says, "We will have to increase the level of spending overall to ensure that every student gets access to the type of education that we want for our children." ...Health care union leader Dennis Rivera must not be very optimistic about the chances of an on-time state budget. His union has scheduled a major pro-Medicaid rally in Albany on April 7, a full week after the deadline.

 

All contents 2005 Daily News, L.P.

 

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