The Post-Standard


A Vote for Paper

Sunday, April 17, 2005


For several years, state legislators have been wooed, wined and dined by politically connected lobbyists working for the nation's largest voting-machine manufacturers.


Now lawmakers are about to decide which type of voting machine would best suit New York as they overhaul the state's election system. Millions of public dollars are at stake. So is the integrity of the election process.


That's why New Yorkers need voting machines that are secure, accurate, accessible, verifiable and cost-effective. Fortunately, there is a technology available that best meets those criteria: optical scanning of paper ballots. Unfortunately, legislators aren't hearing much about it; voting-machine companies and their lobbyists have been largely pushing electronic touch-screen machines similar to ATMs. Those machines are more expensive and have to be replaced more frequently than optical scanners.


Optical scanning is tried and trusted. Nearly a third of American voters now cast paper ballots read by optical scanners. Some counties in New York, including Onondaga, use the technology for absentee ballots. Anyone who has ever taken a standardized multiple-choice test in school would know how it works. Voters fill in circles next to the names of the candidates they favor. A scanning machine then records the votes directly off the ballots.


Under federal law, New York must replace nearly 20,000 lever-action voting machines in more than 15,570 election districts. The new machines must be accessible to people with disabilities. They must make allowances for voters who cannot speak or read English. And they must allow voters to ensure their votes are accurate before they are cast.


Optical scanning fits the bill on all counts. Voters certainly could review their marked ballots before turning them in. And the ballots would always be available to count by hand in case of challenges by candidates or unforeseen foul-ups.


Ballot-marking devices, too, would be available in each polling place to assist folks with visual, hearing, mobility and language difficulties. The devices don't record votes. They just help people mark ballots.


Touch-screen machines, on the other hand, have proven unreliable and vulnerable to malicious programmers. Unlike optical scanning, these machines record votes as voters make their choices. Sometimes they go haywire.


Three years ago, Miami-Dade County, Fla., spent $24.5 million on a touch-screen system. But coding errors left hundreds of votes uncounted in recent elections. And computer crashes wiped out almost every electronic record for the 2002 gubernatorial primary. Meanwhile, Election Day costs tripled. Now, Miami-Dade and other counties across the nation are considering switching to simpler scanner-readable paper ballots.


New York lawmakers should learn from that costly mistake. There's a chance, though, that they could just let each county decide on its own. (Voting-machine vendors are already pushing their wares at the county level.) That could lead to a patchwork of voting systems with potentially chaotic consequences, especially in statewide elections.


For once, legislators should reject the advances of lobbyists and make a decision that is in the best interest of the state's citizens. They should choose optical scanning as the single standard for voting machines in New York.


2005 The Post-Standard. Used with permission.

Copyright 2005 All Rights Reserved.



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