Greater Binghampton


November 3, 2009


Optical voting machines raise privacy issues with some Broome voters


But others find new system simpler


By Jennifer Micale


Broome County voters noticed the absence of an Election Day hallmark Tuesday: the hulking metal lever machines, which officially retired this year after decades of service.


Instead, sleek black units -- officially called Optical Scan and Ballot Marking Devices -- accepted voters' paper ballots. The transition was mandated by the Help America Vote Act of 2002, enacted in an attempt to reform the nation's voting process after the "hanging chads" issue and other controversies that followed the 2000 election. New York was the last state to comply with HAVA.


"If you've ever taken a standardized test, you know how to fill out the ballot," said Elaine Stewart, who was manning the polls at the Vestal Public Library.


Reviews of the new machines were mixed. Both voters and poll workers say they're quick and easy to use. Polling places experienced relatively few difficulties, although a maintenance person had to be called to reset and restart a machine at Davis College in Johnson City that broke down before the 6 a.m. start.


On the other hand, voters had concerns about privacy and didn't see the need to replace the old machines.


Several voters noted that there are no curtains surrounding the booth, as with the old lever machines. Instead, voters take their paper ballots to a kiosk to fill in. From there, they feed the ballot into an optical scanner -- with a poll worker's aid.


"I had a 'helper' watching me insert my ballot into the scanner," said Brian McMahon, a Conklin voter who noted that the lack of privacy might be intimidating to some. By filling in boxes with markers instead of pencils, voters have no way to correct mistakes on the ballot, he said via e-mail.


Judy Giblin of Binghamton called the machines "one of the biggest wastes of money New York has ever committed," noting that there was nothing wrong with the lever machines. The scanner wouldn't initially accept her ballot, she said via e-mail. She also questioned whether the new devices -- which store the ballots after scanning -- could be easily tampered with.


"I think it's stupid," said Reenie Dedrick after she voted at Conklin Town Hall, noting that the new electronic voting system involves even more paper than the previous one. "I don't see how it makes any sense!"


Not everyone was disappointed, however. Becky Rowe, who stopped to vote early Tuesday at Johnson City Middle School, said it was easier to find items on the paper ballot as opposed to the lever machines.


With a poll worker close by, Johnson City resident Bruce Fahlbusch fed his ballot into a machine at Johnson City Middle School. He said he was pleasantly surprised.


"I did some research online first. In many ways, it's actually a lot easier," he said.