November 17, 2007
The Online Community and News Source for Clinton,
Essex and Franklin Counties of Northeastern New York
The poor performance of an electronic voting machine in
Essex County didn't seem to bode well for a transition from the old
gear-and-lever war horses in use for decades, but then again, the advent of
that style back in the 1920s wasn't all that promising either.
New electronic election machine earns no-confidence vote
By KIM SMITH DEDAM
After almost 90 years, they still do the job.
On election night, blue curtains -- some faded in folds,
some plaid, some striped -- were drawn shut in New York millions of times, a
simple but efficient way to guarantee privacy for one of America's greatest
It's easy to do, using the metal tabs on the old lever
machines; they make a small click when flicked into place. They don't lock, so
people can check their vote manually.
Or change can their minds and make another choice.
The half-ton mechanical hulk doesn't require electricity or
special software installed by trained technicians. The vote is cast when the
red-handled lever, which also opens the curtains, is pulled back.
Each vote is counted in the turn of a tiny cog buried in the
back of the machine.
20 MINUTES PER BALLOT
On Nov. 6, at the Essex County Board of Elections office,
another kind of voting machine was taken for a test run.
By 8:30 p.m., 28 people had voted on the AutoMARK, made by
Election Systems & Software, a company headquartered in Omaha, Neb.
The machine was selected and installed specifically for
voters with disabilities; the screen is adjustable and the print size can be
It cost about $4,000, according to Republican Election
Commissioner Lewis Sanders, including programming, software setup and printing
"Each time we use one, it has to be reprogrammed by the
company's service people," he said.
The trial run took about 20 minutes per ballot compared to
two or three minutes per voter on the lever machines.
The AutoMARK isn't the device Essex County intends to use to
replace the old lever-style machines when it complies with the 2002 Help
America Vote Act that makes electronic versions mandatory, but it's likely the
new ones will also be of the touch-screen variety, so officials watched the
experiment with interest -- and dismay.
The AutoMARK had issues in tabbing a write-in test ballot.
Tapping M, the machine recorded L; tapping I, the machine
recorded H; tapping C, the machine recorded B; and so on, always recording the
letter before the one tapped on the touch screen.
In trying to write-in Mickey Mouse, the word looked like:
The AutoMARK had to be programmed to issue the specific
ballot (one of 18 in Essex County) a voter uses.
Test-ballot preparation took several minutes as the machine
whirred through a recalibration.
When it was ready, each political race came up on the screen
with candidates listed top to bottom.
It's supposed to take a light tap with a stick-type pointer
on a blank oval next to a candidate's name to cast a vote.
It did not always work.
Sometimes it took several taps, consecutively harder, before
the candidate's slot lit up bright yellow, and the oval filled in.
Another swift tap on a button at the bottom right scrolled
the screen to the next race.
In the end, if a vote was skipped, the machine spit out the
message "under voted," even if someone didn't want to vote for more
than one candidate.
The problem with improperly calibrated screens is not a new
Election Systems & Software equipment was at the heart
of a General Election debacle in Sarasota, Fla., in 2006 (see Web box).
Most elections workers in Essex County gave this year's test
run a thumbs-down, envisioning a future of long lines, given the additional 15
minutes per ballot.
Sanders said the county is still looking at various voting
systems to replace the stable of automatic lever machines, anticipating costs
near $300,000 to buy 75 to 80 machines.
"I don't know how the county could afford it," he
And for every election, including those for fire and school
officials, a service technician would have to physically come to Essex County
to install new software to reprogram machines. And the electronic systems have
to be kept in a central, temperature-controlled environment, which means
transporting them to and from polls.
"We're looking to put one per town next year,"
A report last August by newsman Dan Rather on HDNet
television, a high definition network, revealed Election Systems & Software
equipment -- specifically the iVotronic -- is made in "sweatshops" in
the Philippines, where workers earn between $2.15 to $2.50 per day.
According to the report, manufacturing problems were often
ignored on the production line, and a quality-control check included
"shaking" the machine.
The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has since challenged
the election-equipment manufacturer's practice with a notice of noncompliance.
The bulk and inconveniences of the behemoths used for so
long by voting Americans have long since become familiar routine to the
election process. But those gear-and-lever machines, too, whipped up strong
emotions once upon a time.
Designed and then first built by the Automatic Voting
Machine Corporation in 1892 in Lockport, the units caused a raging controversy
in 1922 when they went into widespread use.
The New York Times carried daily reports as New York City
rejected a $399,500 bid from the voting machine company to provide 425 machines
at the rate of 100 a month to the city by Sept. 1, 1922.
Then, the worker issue was a local one, when the NYC Labor
Council argued "the city could not purchase supplies from a corporation
(that) did not pay the prevailing rate of wages and did not maintain an
And the city Board of Elections heard from aldermen in
Rochester who, at the time, had been using the machines for nearly 20 years.
Those officials complained of possible Republican
"We in Rochester are against the machine, because we
are compelled to vote blindfolded. While we have never charged the Republicans
with fraud in connection with these voting machines, we always have been
suspicious, because since the machines were installed we have never been able
to elect a Democratic Mayor, which we used to do occasionally," former Rochester
alderman Jacob Gerling told commissioners in 1922.
In other inquiry, officials in Chicago took issue with the
size of the units.
"The great trouble with this machine in a city like
Chicago is that it is too cumbersome to handle, weighing approximately 1,100
pounds and requires the attention of a mechanic at each installation."
(New York Times, May 16, 1922)
The Times followed the story for months as the purchase
mired in legal action with testimony on back-room negotiations and price hikes.
The machines, sold to the cities of Syracuse and Rochester
for $750 and $775 apiece in 1918, were bid in New York City at $940.
By 1925, that metropolis had purchased 75.
There are more than 8,000 lever voting machines there now.
When they are at last put out of service, there will be tons
of scrap metal.
"They print ballots in five different languages in the
city," Sanders said.
Essex County has 58 automatic voting machines, 29 tons
Crown Point and Westport have machines dating to 1922 and
Essex County Democratic Election Commissioner David Mace
said old lever machines retired in other states, such as Connecticut, are
selling for $40 apiece on eBay.
As history repeats itself, Department of Justice legal
action pushing states to switch voting systems is bogged down in the courts.
And touch-screen machines, with ethical questions about how
they are made, can't be manufactured fast enough to gear up for next year.
"They can't make them fast enough," Sanders said.
Due to cost and sheer logistics, it is likely the old lever
machines will be rolled from their corners in town halls again next year.
They'll have some familiar handlers.
County election workers, mostly women who have run
election-night polling places for more than 25 years, are accustomed to the
hulking machines that fold into a box about the size of a big freezer.
Lucy Connell, of Westport, counted back to when she began
working election night.
"Well, it was before my husband ran for office,"
"And he's been in office six years."
Anabelle Kurtz, staffing the Board of Elections office in
Essex County, remembered when she was called in to serve when a friend ended up
short one worker 25 years ago.
"I'm still here," she quipped.
Sanders said there is just not enough time or money to gear
up with new equipment for 2008 elections.
"Here's the whole key," he said, "the money.
Essex County is not in any position to buy new machines."
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