Times Union

October 5, 2007


N.Y.'s voting fights


For a long time, good government groups urged patience with the New York Board of Elections as it took its time in deciding what new voting system, or systems, would be best for the state. And for a long time, that patience seemed justified, as other states rushed ahead to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act by buying machines that later turned out to have problems. New York, in turn, could learn from those mistakes.


But that was then. Now it is late in the game, and it appears that politics, not prudence, is driving the decision on what voting machines New York will certify. Indeed, the partisan divide is so wide that a federal judge might wind up making the decision for the state. That would be both an embarrassment and further evidence of just how dysfunctional New York state government is.


After the "hanging chad" debacle of the 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which requires all states to install new voting systems to guarantee that every vote will count. Some states have approved touch-screen machines that electronically tabulate ballots. Others have approved optical scan machines that operate much like New York's Lotto system. That is, the ballot is scanned into the system, just as a bettor's card is scanned by a cashier, and the paper card is stored by the state so it can be cross-checked in the event of a disputed election.


The decision on which system, or systems, New York should approve is supposed to be made by the state Board of Elections. But as Jim Odato of our Capitol Bureau reported Thursday, the two Republicans on the board appear to be leaning toward touch-screen machines, while the two Democrats seem to favor optical scanning devices.


As regular readers of this page are aware, we have long supported optical scanning machines. They are less expensive than the touch-screen machines, and they provide a verifiable paper trail. True, New York requires that any touch-screen machine also produce a paper trail, but opponents have warned that if the computer codes inside the machine were tampered with, the paper trail would be compromised as well.


Even so, there is nothing to prevent the board from certifying both systems, and leaving it to the county boards of elections to decide which better serves their needs. Ideally, the Legislature would have solved this dilemma long ago, but the leaders, fearing voter backlash, dropped the matter into the laps of local elections boards. But the local board can't buy any system until it is certified by the state board.


Thus, the impasse. The state board is split, and the county boards are stuck. And in the end, a judge might have to make the call that should have been made in the Legislature long ago. How dysfunctional. How disgraceful.


THE ISSUE: A federal judge may have to decide on voting machines for New York.


THE STAKES: It only reinforces the state's image as dysfunctional.


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