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New York vs. the Department of Justice Dilemma

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In response to the travesty in Florida’s 2000 elections, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) with the intended goal of modernizing state voting systems and making them more accessible to voters with disabilities.

New York’s Legislature, true to its reputation as the most dysfunctional in the country, finally passed legislation to implement HAVA in 2005 (Election Reform Modernization Act), leaving the choice of systems to local boards of election (BOE) but giving the oversight to test and certify voting machines for use in NY to the State BOE.

Left at the starting gate in the race for HAVA compliance, the NYS BOE had the opportunity to see the pitfalls in the track and to issue – with the input of many activists and experts -- some of the most stringent voting machine standards in the country in order to prevent NY from falling into the same traps that other states experienced.

However, New York’s ongoing delays have provoked the ire of the federal government, resulting in a lawsuit to force New York’s compliance. New York responded with a rushed, fractured plan for partial compliance, but the Department of Justice is demanding full compliance by the 2008 fall elections.

Many NY newspapers are weighing in on the issue, some offering an oversimplified, nearsighted take -- replete with misperceptions -- on a complex situation.

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HAVA does allow for a separate accessible machine for disabled voters at each poll site, and one plan submitted by New York calls for a ballot marking device at each site that complies with all of HAVA and NY’s requirements. By selecting a ballot marker compatible with the economical Optical Scan voting system, it would be a permanent solution for accessibility.

However, the State Board’s plan includes a dangerous proposal which would allow for partially functioning touch-screen recording computers (DRE’s) — that’s right, the same type of machine that caused the Sarasota debacle in 2006. This proposal would pay about 50% more per machine. DREs, not designed as ballot markers, produce paper trails that are non-compliant with NY’s ballot requirements and cannot be verified by the blind, as New York requires. Such a plan permits counties to buy flawed DREs, prior to certification, bypassing the rigorous security testing these machines have failed in other states, most recently, California.

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The paper trail HAVA mandates is not the much sought-after paper record of each voter’s choices, only machine-generated printouts of race totals. And the touch-screen computers that resulted in Sarasota’s 18,000 undervotes and recent elections with hundreds of thousands more votes than voters were all compliant with HAVA’s “looser guidelines”.

The US Justice Department, sadly, is not the Don Quixote for fair elections, but rather a bulldozer, leveling stable election systems and leaving a trail of trashed, defective -- but compliant -- touch-screen computers in its wake. It doesn’t even acknowledge, or care, that four entire states, New Mexico, Florida, Maryland and Virginia, have legislated discarding millions of dollars of insecure, unreliable and exorbitant touch-screen computers -- all meeting federal guidelines -- or that Senate legislation has been introduced to phase out DREs starting in 2012.

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Marge Acosta is the Long Island Representative for New Yorkers for Verified Voting.

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