Out with the Old Voting Machines?

by Ned Benton

(February 26, 2004) Local voters in three upcoming elections will be registering their choices using the old-fashioned mechanical machines with small levers and large handles that the federal government says must go by January 2006. The mechanical machines do have their problems, but finding and funding replacements is proving to be a challenge - here and across the country.

Automatic Voting Machine
John Caridi maintains the mechanical lever voting machines used in Larchmont and Mamaroneck

Currently the local machines are being checked out and tuned up for the three elections scheduled for:

  • March 2 - New York State Presidential Primaries
  • March 16 - Larchmont Village Elections (Village only)
  • May 18 - Mamaroneck School District Board & Budget

Let nostalgia be another reason for you to vote, because there may be only a few more opportunities to use the old machines.

Out With The Old...

According to the NY State Help America Vote Act Plan, which was released last August as a draft for comment, all lever machines are slated for replacement by January 1, 2006. New York is among 24 states that have applied for funds to replace punch card and lever voting machines, but they have also applied for a waiver of the deadline. These states are basically saying to the Feds: "Show me the money!" (See: Election Reform 2004: What's Changed, What Hasn't and Why for a comprehensive survey of implementation of the HAVA act.)

Automatic Voting MachineAccording the the Election Reform study, enthusiasm about alternative voting technologies has worn off, as voters and election administrators have raised concerns about the reliability of the new systems. "Why compound a problem by making a worse problem!" says Patricia DiCioccio, the Town of Mamaroneck Clerk.

Dicioccio worries that computer-based systems leave no audit trail. Until new systems are proven, she wants to stick with the mechanical lever machines. "I think they're wonderful, and I want to hold on to them for as long as possible."

Problems In Other Communities

While Larchmont and the Town of Mamaroneck have not experienced problems in recent elections, an Audit of the State Board of Elections by the NY State Comptroller reports numerous breakdowns of similar mechanical voting machines across the state. The White Plains Watch Online reported claims of machine malfunctions at the Mamaroneck Avenue School during the November 2001 election.

During the same election, a voting machine malfunctioned in White Plains leading to litigation over the disputed election result. A voting machine jammed - but only on one candidate's line. Investigators for the Attorney General received 103 sworn voter affidavits claiming votes for the losing candidate. These 103 votes would have been more than needed to overcome the 47 vote differential between the two candidates.

While new machines are not being produced, used machines are widely available, along with parts and service. As an interim measure, the Mamaroneck Town Council recently purchased three used voting machines from a company in upstate NY. These are the machines used in local town, village and school district elections.

According to the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Technology Project, the old machines work compartively well: "Paper ballots, lever machines, and optically scanned ballots have the lowest average and median residual vote rates." (Residual votes are apparent votes that don't get counted.)

According to John Caridi, who maintains Mamaroneck's Automatic Voting Machines, "They are fantastic, if they are handled properly you have no problem with them. But they have to be maintained."

However, the Help America Vote Act, a Federal Law passed in 2002 to reform voting technologies and procedures, has raised the bar. It requires that by January 2006, all voting systems must:

  • allow disabled voters to vote independently and privately;
  • allow voters to change or correct their votes before casting a ballot;
  • notify the voter of an "overvote" where too many candidates are selected;
  • produce a paper record that can be audited and recounted;
  • provide alternate languages for voters with limited English proficiency.

The old lever machines can be lowered to accommodate wheel chair voters, but can't comply with the other provisions.

Developments in Albany
The State Senate and Assembly are considering bills to implement the HAVA act in New York. As is often the case, the Senate Bill differs from the Assembly Bill and differences will have to be ironed out. To qualify for federal funding, the legislation must include a central voter registration system and a program for replacement of the old voting machines.
In With The New?

The County Board of Elections, with support and funding from the Federal government and NY State Board of Elections, is responsible for selecting and purchasing the new systems. The state has applied for a deadline waiver, and no consensus has yet developed for replacement systems. Nationally, there is a lively debate about possible new systems.

Internet Voting: While the Michigan Democrats approved Internet Voting for their 2004 Presidential Primary, the Department of Defense deep-sixed their Internet voting project because of technical concerns about security and reliability.

Electronic Voting: Diebold Election Systems is a major vendor of Direct Recognition Electronic (DRE) voting systems. Their systems have been criticized in a technical study, and there is an ongoing controversy about Diebold's conduct. Walden O’Dell, the CEO of Diebold and a major fund-raiser for the Bush re-election campaign, wrote to contributors that he was “committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes for the president next year.” He explained later that he didn't mean that he would jimmy his company's machines. Another controversy involved Diebold's attempt to enjoin the distribution of internal Diebold communications that questioned thd reliability of their software.

Verified Voting: Legislation has been introduced in Congress to require voting systems to provide each voter with a paper receipt to help assure that each vote is correctly recorded.

Not So Fast?

One possibility is that the tough old mechanical machines will outlast the federal deadline for their replacement. While New York has received $66 million of the $235 million projected cost of the reforms, the proposed Federal Budget proposal provides only $40 million of the $800 million that the Help America Vote Act proposed to continue to support implementation in states and counties.

County Legislator George Latimer observed, "We are watching how unfunded mandates are created -- Congress enacts a law with a noble purpose, along with a promise to fund the costs. When the funds don't come through, should state and local governments have to pay the bill?"

With no agreed upon successor system and no money, localities may be justified in staying the course.

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