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State's lack of paper-ballot option viewed as big mistake

Gannett News Service    10 November 2005

ALBANY ? The state could be on the verge of making a historic mistake by failing to give counties a chance to buy voting machines that count paper ballots and forcing them instead to buy electronic machines, a group of lawmakers, union members and activists said Monday.

?We want our vote to count as we cast it. That's a guarantee electronic machines simply can't provide,? Bo Lipari, head of a group known as New Yorkers for Verified Voting, told a group of about 50 people outside the state capitol.

?This should be a choice for the people of New York state,? said Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca. ?I'm afraid counties won't have a choice.?

At issue is the kind of machines the state should use to replace the lever devices that are scheduled to be replaced next year. The lever machines are considered outmoded because they are difficult for some handicapped people to use.

The two main types of potential replacements are electronic machines, which work like bank ATMs, and optical scanners, which read paper ballots filled out by voters. The electronic machines cost about $8,000 each and the scanners $5,500. The state now has about 22,000 lever machines.

The federal government ordered voting systems modernized after the 2000 presidential-election fiasco in Florida. New York is eligible for about $220 million in federal money to replace machines.

But while new systems are already in place in most other states, the New York Legislature couldn't decide last year what kinds of machines to recommend, and passed a measure that counties be given the choice.

But as the deadline draws near, there is a chance that only electronic machines will be presented to the state Board of Elections to be certified. Critics claim that's because the voting-machine companies, which make both kinds of machines, want to sell only the more expensive ones. And there's no mandate to force them to offer optical scanners.

?If the private companies choose our machines for us, it will be a dark day for democracy in New York,? Lifton said.

She and other supporters of the optical-scan machines want the Board of Elections to make sure that counties will have a choice of which kind of machines to buy.

But Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian said it's beyond the power of the board to require that the optical scanners be available.

?Some folks want to force us to certify an optical-scan machine. We don't believe we can do that,? he said. ?If the Legislature wanted that to happen, they would have put that in the law.?

But he said state regulations do require that any machine chosen have a paper trail so that votes can be verified.

The electronic machines do have such a paper trail, said Jonathan Freedman of Sequoia Voting Systems, one of the companies that wants to sell machines in New York.

?Sequoia strongly believes that the (electronic system) are the better machines,? he said, adding that Sequoia may not ask the elections board to OK their optical-scan machine as well.

But Jessiaca Wisneski of Citizen Action, an activist group, said it's essential that the elections board give counties a chance to buy optical-scan machines.

?Any other choice besides optical scanners will be a choice for the voting-machine companies bent on maximizing their profits at the expense of New York's voters and taxpayers,? she said.

Here's the likely schedule for decisions about new voting machines, according to the state Board of Elections:
Before end of year: Adopt regulations for new machines.

Early January: Start certification and testing process for machines that companies offer.

By March 31, 2006: Companies offer machines for sale to counties.

September 2006: New machines are in place for primary elections.

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