The New York Times

May 11, 2005


Albany Leaves Choice of New Voting Machines to Counties



ALBANY, May 10 - State lawmakers said Tuesday that they have agreed not to agree on what kind of new voting machines the state should buy to comply with new federal guidelines to modernize its equipment after the 2000 election. Instead, they said, they would let each county choose what type of machine to buy.


The tentative decision could help New York - which, federal officials have said, has made less progress complying with the federal Help America Vote Act than any other state - move ahead with a plan that would allow it to collect $153 million from the federal government to upgrade its voting system and replace the aging lever machines that much of the state relies on.


But members of several civic groups said that allowing the state's 57 counties, plus New York City, to buy different machines could lead to chaos by making it difficult to establish uniform procedures to govern statewide recounts - which proved to be a major stumbling block during the disputed presidential election in Florida in 2000.


Forcing the ultimate decision down to the county level promises to set off another round of expensive lobbying by voting machine companies hawking their wares. And some officials said that if local governments have to study the issues anew, it could make it even less likely that the new system can be up and running by the 2006 elections.


State Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who is a co-chairman of the Legislature's conference committee on election modernization, said that he thought giving the counties the choice would work well, as long as the state issued uniform standards and guidelines. "If everybody's meeting basic standards - and we have a couple of different options out there - I don't really see a downside," he said.


Assemblyman Keith L. T. Wright, a Harlem Democrat who serves as the other co-chairman, said that while the Assembly had hoped to see a uniform system adopted, giving the choice to the counties could help the Legislature move forward. "We have been at this table for just about a year," he said. "And to come to an agreement on a total statewide uniform system right now - I don't know if it's entirely possible."


So far, uniform voting systems are more the exception than the rule. Six states and Washington D.C. have purchased a single voting system used by every jurisdiction, according to Jeannie Layson, a spokeswoman for the United States Election Assistance Commission. The remaining states, she said, were in various stages of deciding.


"Some states may chose to use a statewide system, others will certify several voting systems and will leave it up to the counties to decide which system to purchase," she said. "Of course, the decision to adopt a statewide voting system or to allow jurisdictions to chose their own voting system is entirely up to each state."


Establishing statewide standards for new voting machines could prove nearly as difficult as choosing a vendor. Lawmakers may still have to wrestle with the question of whether to allow optical scan machines or more expensive A.T.M.-style devices, how to ensure that machines leave a verifiable paper trail for recounts, and whether to retain the current requirement that the entire ballot be squeezed onto one page.


Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company



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