Feds Ask Court to Order New Voting Machines for New York by 2008

Karen DeWitt


ALBANY, NEW YORK (2007-11-06) The federal Justice Department has filed papers with a US District Court judge, trying to force New York State to switch over to modern voting machines by the 2008 Presidential elections. Voting rights advocates say that to make the change in a high turn out year could create chaos.


New York State still uses the old- style mechanical levered machines, even though a law passed after the 2000 elections said states had to upgrade their voting systems. Neil Rosenstein, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, says that's because state lawmakers and their representatives on the State Board of Elections couldn't decide on which voting machines to buy in time for the January 2006 federal deadline.


Rosenstein says in this one instance, the gridlock that has plagued Albany for years may have actually helped voters. He says New York has avoided the problems other states have had, when they rushed to purchase expensive new computerized machines that often did not work the way they were supposed to.


"In this case it could be that the state's dysfunction has actually had a good purpose," Rosenstein said.


Now, though, those delays may finally be coming to an end. The U.S. Justice Department is attempting to force New York to comply with the federal voting reform act in time for the 2008 Presidential elections next year. On Tuesday, Election Day, Justice Department lawyers filed new papers with a federal judge, in an ongoing lawsuit, saying the State Board of Elections has demonstrated an "abject inability" to comply with the federal law, and that the court should step in to order that the new machines be purchased in time for next November's contests.


Barbara Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says switching systems in what is predicted to be one of the highest voter turn out years, would be a disaster.


"This would be monumental mistake," Bartoletti said. She said other states, including Florida, California and Ohio, have seen their elections go awry in recent years because of hastily purchased faulty equipment.


The state board of elections has been belatedly working toward the purchase of new machines, with a plan to try them out in two years. Their reasoning is that 2009 will be another light turn out election, with just a handful of local races outside New York City to be decided. They believe it would be easier to practice with a new system when fewer voters are participating.


The State Board had also required that any machines that are purchased have the capacity to create a paper trail, in case any computerized systems malfunction. Bartoletti, with the League of Women Voters, says after years of delay, the Board is finally on track, and is setting up strict testing standards before they give counties the go-ahead to purchase any new machines.


But the Justice Department, in it's papers, says those rules should be scrapped in favor of getting a new system, any kind of system, in place by 2008. It says the new regulations will further delay a process that is already nearly two years past the mandated deadline.


The legal briefs also charge that New York's current, outdated system also discriminates against disabled people. Although the state has mandated an accessible voting machine in each county, the Justice Department says that's not enough to ensure access.


To back up their argument DOJ quotes from a 2005 report from then Attorney General, now Governor Eliot Spitzer, who said no further delays should be tolerated.


A spokesman for the State Board of Elections, Lee Daghlian, says he can't comment on the Justice Department's accusations until the Election Commissioners have had a chance to examine the legal papers. He said they would be too busy to do so on Election Day, but the State Board of Elections does plan a meeting for Wednesday.


The judge in the case could rule as soon as next month.


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