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Posted Wednesday October 3, 2007

 

Another delay expected in N.Y. voting machine switch

 

BY JOSEPH SPECTOR

Albany Bureau

 

ALBANY - The state Board of Elections has officially asked for the federal government's approval to delay the installation of new voting machines until 2009, but the elections board remains split on how to satisfy the needs of disabled voters until then.

 

The setback this week means New York will continue to trail the rest of the country in complying with the federal Help America Vote Act, which was adopted after the 2000 presidential voting flap in Florida. The law requires states to install new voting machines to, among other things, increase accessibility for disabled voters.

 

New York has trailed the pack for a variety of reasons - from problems with vendors to indecision over which machines to choose -- and is under court order to speed up the process.

 

The state elections board is asking a federal court and the U.S. Justice Department to postpone the state's deadline until the 2009 elections, saying it will be impossible to replace the state's 20,000 lever machines with a computerized voting system by the 2008 elections - the current deadline.

 

"It's a tight schedule for '09. We think we can do it," said Lee Daghlian, state Board of Elections spokesman.

 

At stake is roughly $220 million in federal aid to install the machines and make other improvements. The justice department has threatened to pull back some of the money if the state doesn't get the machines running; the initial deadline was Jan. 1, 2006.

 

Even if the courts let New York postpone the deadline, the state is still unsure how best to satisfy federal election law until 2009. Last year, the state received court approval to install at least one new handicapped-accessible machine in each county to comply temporarily. That system will continue on Election Day this year.

 

While counties said the machines - which are electronic ballot-marking devices -- worked well, the four-member state Board of Elections board is split over how to proceed in 2008.

 

That means the courts and the federal government may ultimately decide the state's interim fate. A Department of Justice spokesman declined comment.

 

The two Democratic members on the state elections board -- Douglas Kellner and Evelyn Aquila - are recommending that each county install a ballot marking device at every polling place for the 2008 elections.

 

Kellner, the board's co-chairman, said federal law requires the state to have handicapped-accessible machines at every polling place - not just one in every county.

 

"We're not the ones who are 'requiring' one machine at each polling place," Kellner said. "We're simply making a proposal that actually complies with the law."

 

Bo Lipari, head of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said "the disability community is at this point really deserving and requiring that we have at least some minimal voting at each polling place in 2008."

 

The two Republican members -- Neil Kelleher and Helena Donohue - are recommending more machines for 2008, but not necessarily one in each polling place, elections officials said.

 

Adding more temporary machines has irked some county election officials. Some said Wednesday that it could be a waste of taxpayers' money because ultimately the state may elect for a different type of permanent machine.

 

In Broome County, for example, only five voters used the county's one handicap-accessible machine in 2006. So putting one in every polling place could be fruitless, said John Sejan, the county's deputy Republican elections commissioner. It cost the county about $20,000 just to buy and operate the one machine in 2006.

 

To buy more machines, "the cost to the taxpayer will just be an ungodly mess," he said.

 

Elections officials estimate it would cost $40 million to $50 million statewide to install one machine at every polling place. Yet Kellner said if the machines are bought, they could ultimately be modified to serve as the state's permanent machines in 2009.

 

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