Today’s news:

New paper ballots coming in 2009 - Optical scanners to replace old-fashioned lever voting booths in the borough

After years of uncertainty, it’s likely that Brooklynites can look forward to voting, beginning in 2009, on paper ballot optical scanners. Under pressure from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ), which sued the state last fall to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the New York State Board of Elections on January 24th certified three different machines – the Sequoia Imagecast, Premier Automark and ES&S Automark, all optical scanners – for use by voters with disabilities in the September, 2008 primary. The Imagecast uses a paper ballot that is marked by pen; the other two utilize auto-marking technology to create paper ballots that indicate each voter’s selections. It is from these three options that local boards of elections will select the system that will be available for disabled voters in their district to use. They have until February 8th to make their decision. But, choosing a system that can be in place for voters with disabilities is just the first step. By October 23rd, boards of election around the state must select the system that all voters in their district will use in fall of 2009. That is the date by which all of the lever machines must be replaced, under 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. DOJ had previously ordered the state to have new voting machines in place by this past September’s primary. The selection of only paper ballot optical scanning machines for the first round of approvals is a good sign that the state will ultimately go with that system for all its voters, according to voting activists, who have been pushing paper ballots as the most secure way of voting. This is because it is anticipated that the ballot markers that are being selected now for voters with disabilities (and which are compatible with optical scan technology) will use up approximately half of the $190 million in federal funds that is available to New York State to purchase new voting machines. Thus, while it’s “technically still possible” that voters could find themselves face-to-face with touch screen voting machines in 2009, Bo Lipari, the executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, Lipari said that, in his view, it is an extremely unlikely scenario. “To switch later to touch screen machines will be expensive,” Lipari told this paper. “The counties in New York will have spent a significant amount on these devices (which constitute half of an optical scan system), so it makes no fiscal sense to buy another system,” even if the state Board of Elections should later approve a DRE. “We’ve learned never to be complacent, but this time we have reason to be confident that the scanner compatible choices of today will inevitably lead to paper ballots for all New York voters tomorrow,” Lipari had said earlier in a written statement. The likely use of paper ballot optical scan systems across the state is not just a distinction that is appreciated by wonks. Rather, said Lipari, having paper ballot optical scanners offers, “Big benefits for voters in New York State. All the research we have done demonstrates that our costs will be far, far less than with touch screen voting machines.” And, even more important, “We will be voting on auditable, secure, verifiable paper ballots,” stressed Lipari. “There will be no software between the voter and the record of their vote. “This eliminates any possibility of there being problems with the software in terms of recording and, if there’s a problem with counting, we can do a recount,” Lipari emphasized. “We can eliminate the computers and go right to the ballots and count them by hand. That’s very important for the integrity of the vote.” Teresa Hommel, the chairperson of the Task Force on Election Integrity of the Community Church of New York, agreed. “With the voter-marked paper ballot, the voter feels secure,” she noted. “Now, the question is simply the counting. By using the proper procedures, where the public can observe, counting can be made secure.” New York is the last state in the country to comply with the requirements articulated in HAVA, which was put into place in 2002 in the wake of the contested 2000 presidential election. As such, it has been a battleground, as manufacturers of touch screen voting machines (DREs) fought for their systems’ acceptance against a broad coalition of voter advocates who – observing problems in other states with DREs – pushed for systems utilizing voter-marked paper ballots. For this reason, Lipari touted the selection of only paper ballot optical scanning technology as a triumph for citizen activists, who began to interject themselves into the debate in New York about five years ago. “Vendors of voting machines, all these years, have wanted to sell touch screen machines because they can make more money from them,” Lipari recalled. “They have had the ear of the election establishment and the ear of the legislature. Through the efforts of citizen advocates we have defeated that. It is a critical victory that will define how New York votes for a generation.” The role of citizens in the electoral process should continue, added Hommel, beyond the simple effort of casting their ballots. “It’s critically important for citizens not to drop the ball,” she stressed. “We are talking about being poll workers, election observers. We are talking about the people who are there as observers at 9 p.m. when the polls close. That is critically important, so when the tallies are transported to the central Board of Elections for counting, there’s a control on that. “The number one reason that people give for not voting is that they didn’t know if their votes would count,” Hommel went on. “Now you don’t have to wonder. You can show up and be a poll worker, be an observer, be part of a vast system that ends up with people feeling confident that their votes will be counted.” The city’s Board of Elections is especially well-poised to head into the future, Hommel added. While other boards of elections around the state may have waited for the state board to announce its selections, the city’s Board of Elections arranged for demonstrations of the four systems it anticipated might be approved in all five boroughs. “The New York City Board of Elections,” stressed Hommel, “has been entirely responsible and has encouraged public familiarity with the equipment. The city’s Board of Elections is the only one in the state that went to the trouble of setting up that kind of event, so people could take a look.”

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