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Star-Gazette, Elmira, NY

 

Future of voting at stake

Optical scan system safest, but gets unfair rap by wrong information.

 

September 4, 2005

GUESTVIEW

 

It was heartening to have 35 residents of Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties come to Steele Memorial Library in July to hear about the optical scan voting system our counties could choose to replace our lever machines. Sadly, of the 18 public officials who were invited, only one (Schuyler County administrator Tim O'Hearn) attended.

 

As was reported in this paper, speaker Bo Lipari, a computer programmer and director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, documented benefits of a paper ballot/optical scan system over electronic voting machines. These included voter confidence in the system, ease of training workers, low risk of malfunctioning, ease of transportation and storage, and cost savings because one scanner with a ballot-marking device for the disabled serves many more voters than one electronic machine.

 

What has not been publicized, however, is that sponsors of the town meeting (the League of Women Voters in Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties) met with participants by county afterwards to plan what to do next. In the weeks that followed, when they spoke with county officials, they found much skepticism. The skepticism may be based on misinformation about optical scanning.

 

Critics of optical scan cite the cost of paper ballots. A representative of Sequoia, which makes electronic voting machines as well as optical scan, said at a demonstration of machines in Bath on Wednesday that the paper ballots his company would produce would cost about 75 cents each.

 

During the discussion, he acknowledged that Minnesota pays only 14 to 17 cents per ballot but went on to say that New York's format is different and more expensive. Yet as people in the audience pointed out, open bidding on such ballots would lower the cost.

 

A key point in comparing these two systems is that an optical scan system accommodates more voters than an electronic machine. A polling place that serves three voting districts would replace its three lever machines with three electronic ones, but it would need only one optical scan system.

 

Ironically, a June 2005 report by the state Election Commissioners Association says that one scanner could serve only 1,800 voters because it takes 30 seconds to scan the paper ballot. Yet states that have used the scanners for years say it takes three seconds.

 

Most important is the integrity of the system. Common Cause, Verified Voting and Voters Unite have documented incidents nationwide of malfunctioning electronic voting machines, including overheating, failing to record votes or tallying more votes than the number of people who voted.

 

The Supervisor of Elections in Florida's Miami-Dade County has recommended that they replace their $24.5 million worth of electronic machines with optical scan because of the loss of voter confidence and a quadrupling of election-day costs, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

 

In California, an eight-hour test of Diebold's electronic voting machines revealed a 10 percent failure rate, causing the secretary of state to decertify the machines, the Los Angeles Times reported.

 

Critics of electronic voting machines are often labeled as paranoid for saying there's no proof that the machines electronically record, store and count our votes the way they were cast. Yet it is computer scientists, from Rebecca Mercuri of Harvard to David Dill of Stanford, who have warned for years that electronic voting machines can be manipulated by inside programmers or outside hackers. If it happens, or has already happened, we will never know.

 

Many people are unaware that the choice between an electronic or paper ballot/optical scan voting system will soon be made by county officials, possibly based on inaccurate or incomplete data. Civic organizations, community leaders and we, the people, should insist that county officials get bids from several printers on ballot cost, schedule public demonstrations of both kinds of machines, and ask voters for comment.

 

It is imperative that a voting method be chosen that inspires voter confidence and increases voter turnout, rather than doing the opposite. Democracy depends on it.

 

Susan Multer of Horseheads is a former associate professor at Monroe Community College and certified social worker with Southern Tier Hospice. She lives in Horseheads. Guest View offers an opportunity to comment in-depth about an interest or to address specific issues that have public impact.

 

Copyright 2005 Star-Gazette.

 

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