Voting machine certification takes more time than expected; federal funds could be at risk
By RICK KARLIN, Capitol bureau
First published: Tuesday, December 19, 2006
ALBANY -- New York state will miss a court-agreed deadline to have new voting machines in place, members of the state Board of Elections acknowledged Monday.
"We're going to have to sit down with the Department of Justice," said board spokesman Lee Daghlian. The federal agency in March sued the state for being the slowest in the nation to approve and buy new voting machines under the Help America Vote Act.
Justice officials earlier agreed to hold off further prosecution when state officials said the new machines could be ready by September 2007.
But to do that, machines would have to be tested and certified for use by February.
Board of Elections officials, at a meeting of county election commissioners from across the state, said they probably wouldn't make the February deadline because of the slow pace of testing. As a result, the machines won't be in place by September, when local primaries take place.
"We're finding out it takes a lot longer to do than anybody thought," Daghlian said of the testing and certification process.
Whether the state will have the machines ready in time for the March 2008 presidential primaries, Daghlian said, "It's not clear. Probably."
It's also unclear whether the latest setback will further jeopardize federal money the state was to get to help modernize its voting systems. New York was slated to receive at least $200 million, but the Justice Dept. may seek to cut that by $50 million for the missed deadlines so far.
HAVA, passed in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential elections, required states to update their voting machines. In New York, that means getting rid of the aging mechanical lever machines, for which parts are no longer readily available, and replacing them with computerized devices. The process has been subject to heavy lobbying by voting machine manufacturers.
Additionally, some groups, such as New Yorkers for Verified Voting, have expressed concern about ATM-style touch screen machines, and favor optical scan machines that count paper ballots, which they say are more reliable.
For much of this fall, the state has been field testing various machines.
The slow pace of testing isn't all bad, said Bo Lipari, a software engineer who works with New Yorkers for Verified Voting and the League of Women Voters. New York, he said, has been giving voting machines rigorous tests for workability and reliability.
"We've got a very high bar," Lipari said.
Daghlian said some of the tests call for exposing machines to dust and power surges.
Additionally, people like Lipari have been attempting to scrutinize the complicated software systems that allow the machines to tally votes. Testers want to ensure the results can't be tampered with.
Unlike other states, New York is also requiring that machines offer a "full face" display that allows voters to see all the choices in all the races at once, rather than by scrolling through a series of screens, said Daghlian.
While county election commissioners didn't seem upset at the delays, some did complain the state Office of General Services wasn't going to reimburse them for paper cards, software work and other costs associated with this year's purchase of handicapped accessible machines.
Buying such machines was part of an agreement to hold off the federal lawsuit.
County officials said OGS told them "it was too complicated to recalculate the formula," under which the state would reimburse counties for accessible machines, said Norman Green, a Chautauqua County elections commissioner. His county, he said, paid about $5,000 for paper ballots and "smart cards," used to help activate the software for their five accessible machines.
Karlin can be reached at 454-5758 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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