As the federal deadline for election upgrades nears, New York officials are deadlocked
By JAMES M. ODATO, Capitol bureau
October 16, 2005
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the last name of one of the competitors. His name is Robert Witko.
Robert Witko, sporting a business suit, conservative tie and wing tips, fires into his sales pitch for replacing New York's old lever voting machines with elections equipment never before seen in America.
"We're so far ahead of our competition," says Witko, unveiling the LibertyVote machine he thinks every election district in New York could use.
In a spiel he has given countless times this year for elections officials across the state, Witko, 40, talks about the ease of using and storing his compact, computerized machine, the ability to scroll to English or Spanish, and soon, Mandarin, and the reasonable cost -- about $7,000 per unit.
"It folds into a suitcase," he says, adding that his competitors' machines are bulky -- weighing about 300 pounds -- and more complicated. And the Liberty is one of only a handful certified by the National Association of State Election Directors under the latest federal standards.
Witko knows elections. His fledgling Liberty Election Systems is based at the home of his family's Albany printing business, Fort Orange Press, which has been selling voting ballots to counties for 75 of its 100 years in business. Paper ballots remain Fort Orange's bread and butter, but Witko sees his electronic voting machines as the future.
He would seem well positioned: the Witkos have run Fort Orange and worked with elections officials for two generations, and county and state elections officials are clearly impressed with the Liberty machine Witko is marketing with the help of his partner, Nedap Elections Systems of the Netherlands.
"It's a good machine," says Armando Tebano, the Republican elections official for Schenectady County. Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state Board of Elections, says other counties, too, "really like the machine and they're ready to buy if they could."
But they can't.
Election changes are stalled in New York amid indecision by state officials about how best to modernize the system. And some groups contend salesmen and lobbyists for high-powered, high-tech machine manufacturers are pushing costly new machines on elections officials. Some advocates say paper ballots would be safer and cheaper.
After two years of buildup and research, the state Board of Elections has yet to define for machine makers the components necessary to get their machines certified for purchase.
New York, in joining a new era in voting nationwide, is sharing in nearly $3 billion from the federal government under the Help America Vote Act to buy new machines following the fiasco with the punch card machines in Florida in 2000. The state, slated to receive $221.4 million, plans to use $190 million for new equipment, with the rest going to training, a voter data registry and other support.
The money has a catch: All systems must be in place by the first federal elections of 2006, which likely means the September primaries, if not an earlier emergency vote to fill a vacancy.
County officials worry they'll have only weeks to decide what to buy because of tight deadlines for getting the systems up.
"They're not all the same. It's not a cookie cutter," said Robert Brehm, a Democratic elections official in Schenectady County and past president of the New York State Election Commissioners Association. His county is getting $1.7 million in federal money for its new systems.
"You need to analyze what you need, how much programming, what kind of technical skills do workers need, etc. We're so hopeful we can make a decision before Dec. 31. We do not want to jeopardize Schenectady County's ability to access that money."
Daghlian says the state elections board hopes to have the standards for certifying machines in place by year's end. The board is keenly aware of the federal deadlines, he said, but state lawmakers took an excessive amount of time agreeing on things like a full-face ballot, a voter-verified paper trail and accessibility for the disabled.
"The feds ... didn't take into account that the New York State Legislature would take two and a half years to do their work," Daghlian said. "We don't know ... whether they'll take money back or say 'you're doing your best.' Some counties might meet the deadline of September 2006, other counties will not. New York City won't. It's a very tight fit."
While standards aren't yet in place, counties appear to favor machines like those that Witko and voting machine industry giants like Sequoia and Election Systems & Software are pushing, direct recording electronic voting systems, or DREs. Voters using them press or punch a screen with the ballot or an image of the ballot on the surface.
But a group of citizens and organizations, including the League of Women Voters, argue that Witko and other DRE firms are leading county officials astray. The League and an organization called New Yorkers for Verified Voting are pushing instead for optical scan machines, which they say are cheaper and simpler.
"I've been calling for the opt scan system for two years," says Bo Lipari, a former software engineer from Schuyler County who retired to found New Yorkers for Verified Voting in 2003.
He and others, including Aimee Allaud, the League's point person on the Help America Vote Act, suspect a bias by manufacturers against optical scanners -- which some of the same companies make -- because there's less profit in them both up front and long term.
Lipari said the motivation is greed -- DREs are more expensive and have substantial maintenance needs on which companies can sell service contracts. "This is some form of collusion," Lipari said.
League scouts statewide are reporting that election commissioners are confiding "a predisposition to electronic voting," Allaud said. County board of elections officials statewide have been getting demonstrations from Witko and his competitors for months. In many cases, the optical scan machines aren't brought along, she said.
"I think they're all in cahoots somehow," said Assemblywoman Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, a proponent of scanners who maintains that many elections officials are being kept in the dark about the option. At an elections machine display set up by vendors at Empire State Plaza in February, she recalled, ES&S pulled out its optical scan machine.
"The second day of our demonstration, they pulled the machine because they said they are not selling optical scan machines in New York because New York is a DRE state," Galef said.
ES&S spokesman Ken Fields said the company has been marketing the scanning as well as the DRE machines in New York.
"Election officials will ultimately decide what type of equipment best meets the needs that they have," he said.
The manufacturers and their lobbying teams in Albany emphasize the DREs are the best fit for the transition from lever machines, offering speed and the ability to use the full-face ballots New York voters are used to, and which are required by state law. They contend a full-face ballot would be too wide for optical scanning machines, and that the paper documents are costly.
"Only Bo Lipari wants optical scan," said Larry Tonelli, state manager for Sequoia. "The election commissioners ... who (would have) all the paper to count, don't want it."
Once the opt-scan community witnesses the new Sequoia machine being developed for New York, the Advantage Plus, it will understand the benefits of electronics, Tonelli maintains.
"The machine does it all," he said, including allowing disabled voters to vote as easily as anyone.
Howard Cramer, Sequoia's top sales executive, said many states and jurisdictions are doing away with optical scanning devices in favor of the electronic machines because of ease and efficiency.
But not all. Michigan, for example, chose to become an all-scan state.
"I think they're great," said Daniel Krueger, Ottawa County clerk and elections officer, whose jurisdiction was the first Michigan county to roll out the scanners in 1992. He said the system is easy to use, and noted that even with DREs, paper ballots would still be needed for absentee voters.
The county, he said, had two recounts and "it is very, very nice to have the actual ballot an individual casts."
Some officials are open to the scan machines, but say they lack reliable data to fully weigh the pros and cons. Douglas Kellner, a Democratic elections director in Manhattan the past 12 years, said part-time, low-paid officers and staff are at the mercy of salesmen.
"The problem is nobody's really doing the analysis that needs to be done," he says. He fears county officials will go with their gut and purchase what they're being told is the superior system.
"Replacing the current equipment with DREs doesn't require as much thinking outside the box. Nobody in New York is going around the country and trying to survey the experience of jurisdictions using scanning equipment," Kellner said.
Brehm said he suspects that, with groups like Lipari's turning up the heat, scanners will be among the offerings in New York. "I would guess a majority of the people might be leaning toward an electronic machine of some sort," he says. "But I don't believe any of the appliances will match the lever machines. What are you going to do if these machines break down in six years? Is this going to be a solution for the next 40, 50, 60 years? I don't see it. And it's an expensive proposition."
Witko says he understands county officials' concerns. He said he scouted products before joining forces with Nedap to offer an electronic machine that would provide "a seamless transition" from the old lever machines.
Witko said he could make a great living selling thousands, if not millions, of paper ballots that would be needed for scanning machines statewide, and could have used his entrepreneurial drive to develop a scanner for New York. But, he maintains, optical scans are not the way to go. "I don't believe in that solution," he says.
Witko is backed by one of the most experienced election machine repairmen in the U.S. -- Dale Marshall, who runs Voting Machine Service Center Inc., near Jamestown. Marshall's company is Liberty's technical support partner. It's at his plant that the Liberty machines would be assembled.
Even though he mourns the loss of the lever machines he's been fixing for 40 years, Marshall says he's sold on the simplicity and reliability of Witko's product line. He questions the optical scanners' accuracy and feasibility in New York.
Moreover, he's worried about the transition planned. The state, he says, must win more time to get new systems up because there's no manufacturer able to make 22,000 machines needed to replace the lever unit, train 90,000 poll workers and 2,700 election machine technicians and still be able to educate voters on how to use the new products by November 2006.
"It's theoretically impossible," says Marshall, who services machines in 19 states. "I honestly believe no matter what system is placed in New York state, within eight to 10 years, max, it will be replaced again. I just think the technology is moving so fast."
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2006, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.
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