November 8, 2005
Machine companies favor electronic models
By Jay Gallagher
Journal Albany bureau
ALBANY — The state could be on the verge of making an historic mistake by failing to give counties a chance to buy voting machines that count paper ballots and forcing them instead to buy electronic machines, a group of lawmakers, union members and activists said Monday.
"We want our vote to count as we cast it, That's a guarantee electronic machines simply can't provide," Bo Lipari, head of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, told a group of about 50 people outside the state Capitol.
"This should be a choice for the people of New York state," said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca. "I'm afraid counties won't have a choice."
At issue is the kind of machines the state should use to replace the lever devices set to be replaced next year. The lever machines are considered outmoded because they are hard for some handicapped people to use.
The two main types of potential replacements are electronic machines, which work like bank ATMs, and optical scanners, which read paper ballots filled out by voters. The electronic machines cost about $8,000 each and the scanners $5,500. The state now has about 22,000 lever machines.
The federal government ordered voting systems modernized after the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida. New York is eligible for about $220 million in federal money to replace machines.
But while new systems are already in place in most other states, the New York Legislature couldn't decide last year what kinds of machines to recommend, and passed a measure that counties be given the choice.
But as the deadline draws near, there is a chance only electronic machines will be presented to the state Board of Elections to be certified. Critics claim that's because the voting-machine companies, which make both kinds of machines, want to sell only the more- expensive ones. There's no mandate to force them to offer optical scanners.
Voting machine vendors are pushing the electronic machines because they "bring a much, much greater profit to these same companies," Andi Novick of Rhinebeck said. She pointed to problems in other counties, such as Miami Dade, where machines have malfunctioned or have been shelved because of breakdowns and the need for frequent maintenance.
"If the private companies choose our machines for us, it will be a dark day for democracy in New York," Lifton said.
She and other supporters of the optical-scan machines want the Board of Elections to make sure counties will have a choice of which kind of machines to buy.
"It seems like such an easy thing to do," said Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, Westchester County. "You vote on a paper ballot and then you have a record."
Town of Poughkeepsie resident Werner Buchholz said the most important thing to him is the voting system's security, and he prefers optical scanners because the original paper documents can be audited after an election. He said he doesn't trust electronic voting machines, regardless of whether they offer a paper receipt.
"I don't think that's secure at all, because the printed-out sheet will show exactly what's on the screen, but it wouldn't show what the machine actually recorded," Buchholz said.
Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian said it's beyond the board's power to require the optical scanners be available.
"Some folks want to force us to certify an optical-scan machine. We don't believe we can do that," he said. "If the Legislature wanted that to happen, they would have put that in the law."
But he said state regulations do require that any machine chosen have a paper trail so that votes can be verified.
Electronic leave trail
The electronic machines do have such a paper trail, said Jonathan Freedman of Sequoia Voting Systems, one of the companies that want to sell machines in New York.
"Sequoia strongly believes that the (electronic system) are the better machines," he said, adding Sequoia may not ask the elections board to OK its optical-scan machine as well.
But Jessiaca Wisneski of Citizen Action, an activist group, said it's essential the elections board give counties a chance to buy optical-scan machines.
"Any other choice besides optical scanners will be a choice for the voting-machine companies bent on maximizing their profits at the expense of New York's voters and taxpayers," she said.
Jay Gallagher can be reached at email@example.com. Journal staff writer Nik Bonopartis contributed to this report.
Here's the likely schedule for decisions about new voting machines, according to the state Board of Elections:
Before end of year: Adopt regulations for new machines.
Early January: Start certification and testing process for machines that companies offer.
By March 31: Companies offer machines for sale to counties.
Sept. 2006: New machines are in place for primary elections.
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