Vote of No Confidence

New York shows up late in national push for clean voting

New York's 2006 primary elections are only 10 months away, but it's still a mystery what machines the state's 11.6 million registered voters will use to cast their ballots that day. A federal law passed after the 2000 debacle in Florida requires that the state's old-fashioned lever machines be scrapped by New Year's, and failing that, by primary day. But a state law passed this summer demands only that disabled voters get new machines by next fall, and the rest of us by 2007.

It's unclear, however, if the state deadline is valid—and even if it's legit, whether it can be met. After months of squabbling in Albany, New York was among the last states to move toward new machines, and instead of imposing a single technology from Buffalo to Brooklyn, it left the final pick to county boards of elections.

That decision, says Councilman Bill Perkins, is proving "disastrous." To date, the local boards haven't picked their machines, because the state hasn't certified what devices—including optical scanners and touch-screen machines—the locals are permitted to choose from. That means the crucial process of training poll workers and educating the public has yet to begin. Voting-machine manufacturers have yet to formally offer their products here because the state hasn't finalized the rules it will use to certify them. A draft of those rules was recently published, but the public comment period has yet to open. Public hearings are planned, but the state board of elections can't yet say where or when.

photo: Richard B. Levine
Machine politics, New York–style
photo: Richard B. Levine

Meanwhile, a public panel that's supposed to advise the state board on the certification process has met just once. The Citizens Election Modernization Advisory Committee was barred by court order from conducting official business after an advocacy group sued over the composition of the panel. In the background, some lawyers are criticizing the way the state has interpreted an 1899 voting law.

At the same time, the clock is ticking toward January 1 and yet another deadline, this one for the state to produce a new voter registration database. The state board of elections—blaming legislative delays—has yet to even issue the contract for a company to do that job. The U.S. Justice Department could sue the state for missing the deadline, and it's possible Albany could lose millions in federal aid. Millions more could be at stake if the old-fashioned lever machines are still in use come primary day. There's no grace period: New York already got a pass for the first federal deadline for the machines and the database, which passed two years ago.

"It is either a classic case of dysfunctionality of the state or a devilish plot," says Perkins, who as chair of the City Council's Governmental Operations Committee has held hearings on voting machines. "We're the latest in the nation and then instead of coming up with a standard they let every county decide, which complicated the problem 58 times."

Most puzzling of all is that all of this confusion—the missed deadlines, the ticking clock, the lawsuit, and the specter of a federal penalty—is New York's twist on the Help America Vote Act, which was supposed to make elections more fair and efficient.

Disagreeing on issues like what forms of ID to accept at polling places and whether to purge the rolls of ineligible voters, the state legislature dithered until June on reacting to a federal law passed in 2002. "They went hurtling along for two years waiting for the other sides to budge and came up with a compromise that basically did nothing and left the decisions up to the counties," says Neal Rosenstein of NYPIRG.

But while the reps and senators dallied and the election boards waited, the companies that make voting machines swooped into the state, spending thousands on lobbyists and meeting with state legislators and the local officials who soon will decide how to spend millions in federal money. However, the companies themselves have a choice in the matter: They'll decide what machines to submit for certification. And that's what has some advocates worried.

Like the tortured path New York State has followed so far, the lingo of voting machines can be confusing. "They've been just pushing the DREs," says Susan Greenhalgh of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, an organization that opposes the use of Direct Recording Electronic equipment, otherwise known as "touch-screen" devices. Adrienne Kivelson, elections specialist for the New York City League of Women Voters, agrees: "We are very concerned that we have optical-scan machines to choose from and we don't want to see a situation where the vendors decide that they don't want to offer optical-scan machines."

Touch-screen machines are already in use in Saratoga County, and state board of elections spokesman Lee Daghlian says they've worked well there. But for years now, critics have questioned the reliability of DREs. A report this fall by the U.S. Government Accountability Office recounted problems with touch-screen machines in California, Maryland, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, some of which disenfranchised voters. In the 2002 Florida primary, DREs produced by Election Systems & Software—one of the firms that are eyeing the New York State market—took so long to boot up that long lines formed at polling places.

Miami-Dade elections supervisor Lester Sola said in a May 27 memo that the county should consider abandoning the touch-screen machines it purchased for $24.5 million three years ago and switch to optical-scan technology. Optical-scan devices use paper sheets, like the ones on standardized tests. Voters fill out their sheets and insert them into a counter that is supposed to alert them if they voted too often for an office or failed to vote for an office. The sheet provides an automatic paper record. Kivelson says optical-scan machines meet the League's criteria of being secure, recountable, and accessible. What's more, given the tight time frame the state faces, she says, "we think it would be less training and a less difficult system to have the public learn about."

Three companies are actively interested in the New York voting-machine market: ES&S, Sequoia, and Liberty; together, they've spent nearly $600,000 on lobbyists over the past three years. While Liberty makes only a DRE machine, ES&S and Sequoia produce both. But Perkins, State Senator Liz Krueger, and others allege that those companies are promoting their DRE machines over the optical-scan option. The motive, supposedly, is profit: DRE machines tend to cost less but you usually need more of them.

Calls to Liberty and Sequoia weren't returned, but ES&S spokesman Ken Fields says his firm has for months been pitching both products. One is the iVotronic LS, a DRE that is based on "proven technology" used in other states adapted to comply with New York's law, which requires a one-screen ballot, multiple languages, and a paper printout "that prints as a voter is going through the process of making decisions and allows them to look at what votes have been reported from that technology." The other is an optical-scan system. Fields says the firm intends to sell both products here.

Daghlian says the hope in Albany is that the machines are selected and delivered by July. Then they'll be tested and staff will be trained. "So it's a tight—very tight—schedule, depends on a lot of people doing the right things at the right time," Daghlian says.

For New York's board, the work begins once the state certifies some voting machines. "I can't see it happening until early '06, and unfortunately, for us that's months and months too late," says John Ravitz, executive director of the New York City board of elections, which has already hired new workers to deal with the changeover. Because of the state law that has the dual deadline of 2006 for disabled voters and 2007 for everyone else, city election workers might be running two systems next fall. But that could raise concerns about equal treatment, opening the door to legal action from activist groups.

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