Today’s news:

Lever voting machines on the way out - NYC Board of Elections chooses new paper ballot system for disabled voters

The New York City Board of Elections’ choice of a ballot marking system for disabled voters is likely to lead to the selection of optical ballot scanning devices by next year to replace the lever machines on which New Yorkers have voted for decades. The board’s commissioners selected the ES&S Automark from a group of systems previously approved by the state Board of Elections during their meeting on February 8th, in accordance with a court-ordered timetable to bring New York State into compliance with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was passed in 2002 in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election. New York is the only state in the nation that has not yet complied with HAVA, which requires that voting machines be handicapped-accessible and recountable, and provide a second chance to vote, in case of error. New York missed the first federal deadline. The Department of Justice (DOJ) had previously ordered the state to have new voting machines in place by this past September’s primary, and subsequently sued the state when that deadline was not met. The selection of the Automark, which uses auto-marking technology to create paper ballots that indicate each voter’s selections, puts the city on schedule to have equipment in each polling place on which disabled voters can cast ballots independently by this fall’s primary, as required. Subsequently, the city’s Board of Elections has until October 23rd to select a voting system for all voters that must be in place for the 2009 elections. Statewide, purchase of ballot markers for voters with disabilities will use up approximately half of the $190 million in federal funds that is available to New York State under HAVA to purchase new voting machines. This, said Bo Lipari, the executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, is one of the things that makes it likely that New York will eventually select optical scan technology to replace the old lever machines rather than touch screen voting systems (DREs) that have been opposed by many citizens groups. “Presumably, by making the choice of this particular ballot marking device, the implication is a decision to go with paper ballot optical scanning devices in 2009,” Lipari noted. “Essentially, half the system is purchased at this point,” Nonetheless, Lipari – who said it was, in his view, “about 85 percent certain that New Yorkers will vote on paper ballots and optical scanners in 2009” – cautioned, “We’re not out of the woods yet.” This, he said, is because there are still individuals on the city Board of Elections staff who “favor DREs. The question is, will any DRE be available at this point?” Teresa Hommel, the chairperson of the Task Force on Election Integrity of the Community Church of New York, said she was “happy with the decision” made by the city’s Board of Elections. However, she stressed, “I hope that everybody understands that as we leave the lever machines behind, more people have to be involved in the election process. We need more poll workers, people who are not intimidated by computers. If you can turn on a TV, you can turn on an Automark. If you can use a remote control, you have way more skills than you need for the Automark.” The democratic system, Hommel added, by its very nature requires citizen participation. “The change in technology,” she noted, “is really an opportunity to revitalize democracy and for people to re-involve themselves in the process of conducting elections. It’s so much more than registering people and getting out the vote.” City Councilmember Simcha Felder, the chair of the council’s Governmental Operations Committee, took aim at the tangle of red tape that had complicated the selection process from the onset. While expressing praise for the city Board of Election’s “conscientiousness in making the decision,” Felder said that, in his view, “The whole system – from the HAVA legislation down – has been so symbolic of what’s wrong with government – one thing after another, with deadlines and recommendations and court orders that don’t make sense. “If you are going to turn things upside down – which is right – you have to do it in an organized, efficient manner,” Felder declared. The entire situation, he noted, has been, “A logistical nightmare from which I hope we wake up sooner rather than later. A lot has to get done, including rewiring schools and things like that, that have nothing to do with the machines themselves, and, of course, acclimating voters to these machines.” According to Lipari, the state Board of Elections still must “formally authorize” the use of the machines chosen by each county; this, he said, would be done as of February 27th, with purchase orders for the equipment going out the next day, and the first equipment arriving in the city as soon as late spring for “acceptance testing.” One of the ballot-marking devices will be in each polling place. A total of 1,798 are needed in New York City, Lipari said. ES&S has provided voting equipment to “jurisdictions in 46 states,” according to Ken Fields, a company spokesperson. “Approximately 33,000 Automarks are already being used.,” he added.

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