Nassau and Suffolk take aim at state's deadline to replace lever machines by September primaries
BY JAMES T. MADORE
Newsday Staff Writer
December 22, 2006
An insurrection that appears to be building from the counties could unravel plans to replace the state's antiquated lever voting machines in time for the primary elections next September.
Nassau County's legislature and elections board asked a federal judge yesterday to allow them to participate in a lawsuit against New York State that aims to extend into 2009 the deadline for purchasing new machines.
In October, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy sued in state Supreme Court to overturn an interpretation of state law that calls for all lever voting machines to be scrapped because people in wheelchairs cannot reach the top levers and the blind cannot read the ballot. Levy would rather keep the lever equipment but purchase other machines for the disabled.
Officials in both counties are encouraging their counterparts across the state to join them in court.
"I think this really has a chance of gaining legs," said William T. Biamonte, Nassau's Democratic elections commissioner. "This effort by Nassau would give all counties a voice in the process, if they sign on."
Levy praised the initiative, saying, "We in Suffolk would look very favorably upon joining Nassau in any suit that would delay, if not eliminate, implementation of the Help America Vote Act."
That 2002 federal law seeks to increase the veracity of election results and access for the disabled - a response to Florida's vote-counting debacle in the 2000 presidential race. But New York lags behind the other 49 states in compliance, which led the Justice Department to sue once the state missed the deadline last Jan. 1.
Federal officials already have taken back about $50 million of the $220 million given to New York to implement the law, according to area officials.
A federal judge in Albany established a new timetable, which officials in Nassau and elsewhere said doesn't allow the time needed to test the new machines and train thousands of poll workers.
Counties are required to choose by March 7 the type of equipment that voters will use. But the state Board of Elections hasn't yet approved any of the machines - and probably won't do so until late February.
"This isn't just about picking machines," said Biamonte. "This is about having a competent voting system that voters can have confidence in. ... The current timeline is a recipe for disaster and won't work."
Nassau Legis. Lisanne Altmann (D-Great Neck) predicted chaos at polling stations next year unless election boards are given more time to order machines and train poll inspectors and the public in how to use the new technology.
She said Nassau wouldn't join Suffolk's suit because it doesn't address the tight timetable. "I see these as complementary actions," she added.
Election officials in Suffolk and New York City said they would take "under advisement" joining the Nassau initiative. John Ravitz, executive director of the city elections board, also expressed worry about meeting the March selection deadline. "It is alarming. ... We don't even know when the state is going to tell us which machines we can choose from," he said.
Some activists praised the counties' revolt.
Fran Reid, co-chair of Reach Out America, said the Great Neck-based group favors optical scanners over ATM-style voting machines, and any delay in purchasing "will help to ensure a secure and verifiable system that all voters can have confidence in."
Copyright 2006 Newsday Inc.