May 14, 2007
If you want one good reason why New York's Legislature has been labeled the most dysfunctional in the nation, look no further than the Florida statehouse.
In February, Florida Gov. Charles Crist ordered the state to stop using electronic touch-screen voting machines that do not produce a paper trail. Now, less than three months later, the Florida Legislature has voted to replace all touch-screen voting machines in 15 counties with optical-scan machines in time for the 2008 presidential election.
That amounts to swift legislative action. But New York? State lawmakers here never did decide which voting machines New York should install to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. Instead, the Legislature tossed the hot potato into the laps of county election boards, who must decide which systems to purchase for their jurisdictions to replace the lever machines that voters have been using for decades. The only statewide requirement is that any new system must produce a paper trail that can be reviewed in the event of a close or contested election.
There was a time when New York's slow approach to HAVA compliance made sense. Why rush ahead and mandate a certain system only to discover later on that the system is terribly flawed? That would be a costly blunder. Why not wait and see how other states were doing, and avoid their mistakes?
But that time seems to have passed. More and more, it is becoming easier to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the various voting systems now on the market.
That certainly is the case now, thanks to the Florida experience. There's no doubt that Florida rushed too quickly to embrace touch-screen voting devices. The flaws in these systems, which operate much like ATM machines, have been pointed out by good government groups for years. Many systems lack an adequate paper trail, while others produce no trail at all. And they are vulnerable to hackers who can invade their software and skew results. Or the software may simply malfunction and fail to account for thousands, even millions, of ballots.
Florida's experience validates these concerns. Last November, some 18,000 votes cast on touch-screen machines were never recorded in a tight congressional election in Sarasota County.
More than anything else, the Florida experience shows the advantages of optical scan machines, which are cheaper than touch-screen systems anyway. Optical-scan systems work much like Lotto machines: A voter hands a paper ballot to be electronically scanned into the system. The paper ballot is retained in the event a review or recount is ordered. It's fast and dependable.
It's time then -- past time, really -- for New York's county boards of elections to make the right decision and select optical-scan machines throughout the state.
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2007, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.