NY board chooses new voting machines for handicapped



Associated Press Writer

5:35 PM EST, January 24, 2008




The state Board of Elections on Thursday approved more accurate, modern voting machines accessible to the disabled that must be ready for the fall elections.


The decision Thursday is a crucial step in a court-ordered timetable to finally comply with the Help America Vote Act, established to improve the accuracy of voting after the long contested 2000 presidential election.


One of the machines selected is an optical scanner that uses paper ballots voters fill in with a pen, much like standardized tests in schools. The other machines, which were approved pending minor modifications, are "auto markers" that create paper ballots complete with a record of voters' choices.


The approved machines _ two types sold by three companies _ were pushed by Democrats on the board and by advocates for the disabled. Each machine costs about $5,000. Republicans also backed other devices that weren't approved, including touch-screen machines.


The state faces additional deadlines under HAVA, but is on track to provide at least one machine accessible for disabled voters in each polling place. State law had required only one per county.


With the selection of two types of machines, county election officials will have choices from three companies selling the products. Counties must choose those machines in the next two weeks, according to the court ordered schedule.


That's a complicated decision for county officials who have to evaluate machines that haven't yet been certified through testing. They have to place orders by Feb. 8 for machines to be used by disabled voters. That's three days after the state's presidential primary.


"Our concern today is the same concern that we've had all along, it's that the state's failure to reach consensus on a practical plan, earlier, in a timely fashion, will come back to haunt property tax payers," said Mark Lavigne, spokesman for the New York state Association of Counties. "The state has no money in this game, so their decisions or their lack of decisions at this point doesn't cost the state anything."


New York has about $190 million in federal funds to use for implementing HAVA.


The state board still needs to decide how to replace the rest of the old lever-action voting machines. The new machines must be selected by Oct. 23, 2008, and in place for the fall 2009 elections.


Despite unease among county election officials, voting advocates were elated to learn of the board's decision.


"Bravo," said Barbara Bartoletti of the League of Women Voters. "After years of delay and indecision, New York is finally on the road to a secure, accessible and auditable voting system."


New York is years behind meeting HAVA deadlines and was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2006. U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe has threatened to appoint a special master to oversee the state's efforts if it fails to meet deadlines he approved as part of the court case.


"We feel it's a good outcome," elections board spokesman Lee Daghlian said. "Some of the commissioners would maybe have liked more machines involved. At least three gives (counties) an option."


The effort spurred lots of spending on lobbying and campaign contributions in Albany by makers of voting machines.


Sequoia Voting Systems Inc. of California has spent at least $589,000 since 2004 on lobbying administrative, executive and legislative levels of government, including the Board of Election, according to state lobbying records.


Premier of Texas, previously Diebold Election Systems, Inc. of Nebraska, spent at least $548,000 on lobbyists since 2004, while Election Systems & Software Inc. spent at least $420,000 during the same period.


Sequoia Voting Systems contributed $5,000 to the state Republican Committee in 2004, according to election records.


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