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E-vote gets push locally

But machines? price, security questioned
By Tom Grace   The Daily Star   10 February 2005
Cooperstown News Bureau

COOPERSTOWN ? State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer wants New York legislators to enact voting reforms quickly.

In a memorandum dated Feb. 7, Spitzer called for "immediate action to address problems with New York?s voting system."

Spitzer said the state must comply with federal standards set in the Help America Vote Act of 2001. HAVA was passed in response to the chaos in Florida that occurred during and after the 2000 presidential election. It mandates replacing old lever-style and punch-card machines with computerized voting machines.

Electronic machines are easier for people with disabilities to use than the mechanical models in use for the past 80 years or so. Proponents say they also are more reliable.

To make the new system work, Spitzer called on state officials to establish a statewide computerized registration list by Jan. 1, 2006, and to "enact a voter identification law," outlining what forms of ID people must present when voting.

Spitzer?s spokesman, Marc Violette, said Wednesday that Spitzer also wants to ensure that all new voting machines have a verifiable paper trail, so that recounts are possible in disputed elections.

Hank Nicols, Otsego County?s Democratic elections commissioner, said he agrees with Spitzer.

"What?s at stake is the integrity of our elections and the public?s faith in the results," Nicols said Wednesday. "We have to have a system we can trust, and at this time, that means a paper trail.
While computers can count votes as accurately as banks tally credit-card transactions, there are questions about the security of the system from hackers, he said.

Also, operating a public voting system on the basis of a company?s secret computer code is troubling, unless results can be verified through other means, he said.

The most expensive part of complying with HAVA is buying electronic machines, although officials and the public will have to be taught to use them, too.

Sheila Ross, Otsego County?s Republican deputy elections commissioner, said the machines cost between $8,000 and $9,000 each. In Otsego County, 69 machines, costing more than half a million dollars, would be needed.

"And the state would need about 20,000 of them," Ross said.

At $8,000 apiece, the price to purchase machines for New York would be about $160 million. However, the federal government has made more than $200 million available to the state, if the state moves forward with the program, she said.

"Most of that money is just sitting in the bank, but the problem is with the state Legislature," Ross said. "They?ve been dragging their feet, and it?s something we have to get done."

Duncan Davie, spokesman for state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, said Wednesday that lawmakers have been discussing pending voting changes without reaching agreement. One sticking point is that New York has a full-faced ballot, where voters can see all candidates for all races at once.

"The fear is that if we have machines where you have to scroll down to find most of the races, people will vote in the race they see on the screen and skip the rest," he said.

Davie said the Senate is moving forward with measures to reform voting, but he was unsure what the Assembly is doing.

State Assemblyman Bill Magee, D-Nelson, said the Assembly has passed measures and is waiting for the Senate to act.

Lucinda Jarvis, Otsego County Democratic deputy elections commissioner, said she?d prefer to keep the lever machines the county has now.

"They?re reliable, and I don?t think they?re easy to tamper with," she said. "But if we go to computerized machines, it will take some time. I think a lot of people, particularly older people, aren?t going to like them at first. Not everyone is used to a computer, and a lot of people like the lever machines."

Christine Zachmeyer, director of the Catskill Center For Independence, said state lawmakers should put politics aside and implement HAVA.

"This is a civil rights issue," she said. Blind people and those with some physical handicaps are unable to vote with the lever machines, she said.

Although these people may vote with absentee ballots, "they should be allowed to go to the polls with their families and friends and cast their votes like everyone else," she said.

James Eisel, chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, noted that the current machinery has been reliable and generated few complaints in his county.

"With the cost of what they?re proposing, they?d better have the money to pay for it, because there?s no way the people in Delaware County can afford it," Eisel said.

William Campbell, Delaware County?s Republican elections commissioner, said he has heard few complaints about the county?s voting machines.

However, Campbell said, counties are not in the driver?s seat on this issue.

"It?s really up to the state Legislature and the governor," he said.

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