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Battle of the ballot boxes rages on: Representatives, political activists continue to study voting options

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

of The Montclair Times

There appears to be a split ballot on voting machines.

With their self-imposed September deadline long gone, Essex County officials still have not chosen a new electronic election machine, as the frontrunner machines? eligibility and credentials continue to be debated.

A new state law mandates that by 2008, all ballot boxes must include voter-verifiable printed receipts, which enable citizens to double-check their ions before officially casting them. This aims to reduce questions should a recount be needed.

Ballot boxes must abide by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which mandates that all electronic models have a paper recount, disability access, and multiple-language capabilities. A machine lacking these functions could be disqualified from consideration.

However, the bidding process has raised queries of its own, as both Essex County officials and political activists deduce which model is best ? or even compliant with the evolving law.

?When we [choose one], we need to get it right, and have confidence from the public,? Freeholder Carol Y. Clark said. ?Voting is a fundamental freedom. We never want our citizenry to feel uncomfortable.?

After briefly favoring the Liberty Elections Systems? LibertyVote, which meets federal and New Jersey?s recently enacted requirements but has only been used in Europe, Essex County Superintendent of Elections Carmen P. Cas-ciano is once again leaning toward the Sequoia Advantage.

This is mainly due to his dislike for the Liberty?s under-vote function. On that machine, if a person has four options and only casts three ballots, then the machine does not immediately count the ions until reconfirmed by the voter. Casciano worries that people will push the buttons and leave without realizing they must still verify their choices.

?Yes, the Liberty is now state-certified, but I would never choose this with its under-vote feature,? Casciano said. ?To be considered, it would have to be modified and then have it certified again.?

The superintendent said he will a voting machine for Essex County after Liberty is re-certified by the state.

?I haven?t seen anything wrong with Sequoia. It?s old, but does it work? Yes. We haven?t had any problems with this machine,? Casciano added.

Still, retrofitting about 700 Sequoia Advantages with a paper documentation device is expected to cost an additional $1.4 million.

For that reason and others, The Essex County Task Force on Voting, a citizens group of concerned residents in Montclair and other communities who want the county to purchase the best, most voter-friendly and secure voting machine, would like Casciano to consider additional options.

?The Advantage is not up to date, lacks the handicap features, and is expensive,? Task Force member and Montclair resident Katherine Joyce said of the machine?s 18-year-old internal processor.

These sentiments were most recently articulated by South Orange resident Richard Janow, a N.J. Institute of Technology professor who authored a Sequoia certification challenge that was sent to state officials on behalf of Essex County activists during the Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting in Montclair on Oct. 28.

Janow expressed a need for modern voting technology and accessibility standards. He called for a machine that can be easily and inexpensively d, and provides a voter-verified auditable paper record as required by New Jersey law.

During his 30-minute presentation, the NJIT professor focused on Sequoia?s lack of an upgraded voter-verifiable paper trail and certain handicapped accessibility features.

?People with disabilities should have the same voting experience as others,? Janow said.

Casciano contends the machine meets the 2002 federal accuracy standards and will comply with the latest requirements by 2008.

Janow also asserted the Advantage is in need of a full upgrade to meet new requirements, has poor accessibility, an insufficient height adjustment and is vulnerable to hacking.

?The Sequoia machine is weak, and the Attorney General?s Office is trying to make excuses for it,? Janow said.

Conversely, the professor touted LibertyVote?s HAVA compliance, portable modular design and lockable data cartridges.

?We?ve been provided with more information than we ever expected to receive,? Freeholder Vice President Patricia Sebold said. ?This is complicated and it shows what a difficult decision we?ll have to make.?

This is, in part, to the variations of data.

The Task Force contends the Sequoia Advantage is an expensive purchase at $8,000 per machine, or $1.5 million for 700 voting machines needed by Essex County. The Liberty model is estimated to cost $1 million for 750 ma-chines.

Casciano, who did not attend the freeholders? meeting, provided similar figures.

?If the cost is close, then I don?t see the need for a change,? he said, supporting the Sequoia machine.

Activists assert the state has already purchased 3,000 additional Sequoia audio headsets ? before counties have made their decisions.

?I would like to see the board request an extension to review this [before proceeding],? Clark said. ?This needs to be reviewed on the state and federal levels.?

Casciano does not view that as possible.

As the clock ticks, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders is feeling the pressure of this expensive purchase. The county may lose millions of dollars in federal reimbursements if it fails to comply with federal guidelines. The freeholders have already set aside $7.5 million for the purchase of 700 electronic voting machines, of which $4 million will be refunded by the state through HAVA funds.

Sequoia has manufactured more than half of all electronic ballot boxes now in use in New Jersey. If the machines are not HAVA-compliant, then this could set off a statewide scramble to find upgraded electronic models for ap-proval next month and installation by January 2006.

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