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The Post-Standard

 

Delay on voting machines causes concern

State hasn't OK'd devices to replace lever system, which can't be used after August.

Friday, April 20, 2007

By John Mariani

Staff writer

 

Optical scanner-based voting systems are cheaper to buy but more costly to run than touch-screen systems, a study by Onondaga County officials concludes.

 

But the study, released Thursday to County Executive Nicholas Pirro's voting machine task force, took a back seat to a more pressing issue - the fact that New York State has yet to certify any new electronic systems to replace the familiar lever voting machines.

 

"We've all been debating what type of system to use and we don't even know whether we'll have any to choose from," Pirro said. The focus instead should be on getting state lawmakers to act so voters at least will be able to use lever machines this fall, he said.

 

The federal Help America Vote Act is forcing New York to replace its lever voting machines with electronic systems. Election officials in each county are to choose between touch-screen systems, also called direct recording electronic machines, and systems that use optical scanners to read paper ballots.

 

But state election officials are not expected to compile a list of acceptable machines until December, said county Democratic Election Commissioner Edward Szczesniak.

 

Meanwhile, a federal court order and state law both forbid lever machines to be used after August. Barring state or court action, that leaves election officials to figure out whether to have everyone vote this fall by paper ballot, delaying results by weeks, or to risk using lever machines illegally, Szczesniak and county Republican Commissioner Helen Kiggins said.

 

Szczesniak and Kiggins favor touch-screens, saying they are the only systems that comply with the voting act's requirement to let voters who have disabilities cast ballots in private. The League of Women Voters, the Sierra Club and other groups want scanners, saying they are more reliable and produce a better paper trail for recounts.

 

Both sides claimed their favorite was cheaper. Pirro in November asked county comptroller and finance officials to study the cost of each system.

 

The study group, polling communities that use the systems, found that Onondaga County would need 221 scanners at a total cost of $3.6 million, including accessories, compared with 480 DREs costing $4.3 million.

 

But it would cost $321,800 a year to operate the scanners, including printing 600,000 ballots a year at 50 cents each, compared with $27,515 for DREs, the group found.

 

Linda DeStefano, representing the Sierra Club's Election Reform Task Force, said her group has found ballots as low as 19 cents each available from out-of-state printers.

 

The figures only reflect the cost of machines and ballots, said Lenore Rapalski, of the League of Women Voters. "It has nothing to do with transparency or the difficulty of voting."

 

John Mariani can be reached at jmariani@syracuse.com or at 470-3105.

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