Members split along party lines over voting machine choice
By IRENE JAY LIU, Capitol bureau
First published: Thursday, January 24, 2008
SARATOGA SPRINGS -- After hours of delays and arguments, and with a court-ordered deadline looming, New York election commissioners remained deadlocked along party lines over what kind of machines New Yorkers will vote with for decades to come.
If the board can't make a decision by Friday, a federal judge will likely appoint a special master or other independent entity to enforce the court order.
"This theater today is an example of the gridlock that has gotten New York in the situation it is today," said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the League of Women Voters of New York State.
New York is the only state that has not complied with the 6-year-old Help America Vote Act, a federal law that seeks to modernize voting and increase accessibility for disabled voters.
A federal judge has ruled that all of New York's polling sites -- about 8,400 -- must have at least one machine by the September primary that will allow people with disabilities to mark their votes on paper ballots.
The state Board of Elections was supposed to choose the voting machine vendors at its monthly meeting on Wednesday to comply with a court-ordered deadline of Friday. But the panel became mired in a dispute over touch-screen style devices, known as Direct Recording Electronic, or DRE, machines.
The board's Republican members want to include a DRE voting machine by Liberty Election Systems on their list of approved devices.
Douglas A. Kellner, one of the board's two Democrats, opposes including the Liberty machine.
"I will not vote for a DRE," said Kellner, who says the machine would not meet the state's stringent requirements.
In response to his concerns, Liberty submitted a new device, two weeks after a Jan. 10 deadline.
Voter activists and government watchdog groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Brennan Center for Justice, New Yorkers for Verified Voting and New York Public Interest Research Group, have also raised concerns over the DRE technology.
Some other states that implemented the voting act earlier have faced significant problems with new voting machine technology, especially DREs. California purchased DRE machines but stopped using them after problems surfaced.
"DREs are a failed technology," said Bartoletti. "If we jump into that abyss now, after seeing what has happened in California and Florida, well, shame on us."
The state Board of Elections consists of four commissioners: two Democrats and two Republicans. Three votes are required to pass any measure. On Wednesday, Democrat Evelyn J. Aquila was absent, leaving Kellner and the two Republican appointees, Neil W. Kelleher and Helena Moses Donohue.
The morning meeting, which was attended by hundreds of county election officials, vendors, lobbyists and journalists, quickly deteriorated into bickering and was abruptly adjourned for a two-hour recess. Two hours later, it was announced that Donohue was no longer there, and the meeting could not be held for lack of a quorum.
At that point, Kellner was approached by Todd Valentine, the newly appointed Republican co-executive director of the elections board, and offered a deal: Donohue would come back, if Kellner accepted the Liberty DRE machine, according to both Valentine and Kellner.
Kellner declined the offer. At 5:30 p.m., Kelleher and Donohue apologized to the audience and said they were trying to iron out details about a proposed vendor list.
The Republicans proposed that four machines be approved as a package, including the Liberty DRE machine. Kellner voted no. His suggestion to vote on vendors individually went nowhere. The board plans to reconvene at 11 a.m. today.
Irene Jay Liu can be reached at 454-5081 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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