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Breakthrough at the Board?

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NY Could Vote on Paper Ballots

Pressure from Judge Gary Sharpe’s order for the State to put Ballot Marking Devices in place for the 2008 Election may at last force the New York State Board of Elections to authorize a single state wide paper ballot marker and scanner system. Unquestionably, there are many benefits to using only one voting system throughout the state, and it’s obvious that touch screen voting machines, or DREs, are the worst possible choice for New York in light of huge costs and the number of states rapidly abandoning failed DRE technology. But so far the State Board has refused to do what’s right for New York’s voters and have kept DRE vendor hopes alive, even going so far as to recklessly allow vendors to submit DREs to use as Ballot Marking Devices – a purpose they are not designed for, can’t fulfill (see why here, here, and here) and which was protested by NYVV and a coalition of advocacy organizations.

But sources at the State Board of Elections tell me that the small number of submitted systems, and the Board’s inability to agree on what actually constitutes a Ballot Marking Device, could result in only one system being authorized at the Board’s crucial meeting on Wednesday, 1/23/08 – a combination ballot marker and scanner which would virtually guarantee that New Yorkers will vote on paper ballots when lever machines are retired in 2009.

This outcome could potentially please everyone – citizen groups who have long called for a single statewide voting system; county legislatures, editorial boards and citizens across New York State who’ve advocated for voting on paper ballots; even county election commissioners would be glad to have the machine decision be made where it belongs – with the State Board of Elections. One caveat however, the decision to authorize one system for the entire state is being made not because it has been judged the most accessible, user friendly, or accurate, but because a partisan split at the Board leaves only one option left on the table.

Partisan Division on Ballot Markers

The State Board’s Democrats and Republicans disagree about what a Ballot Marking Device must do – specifically, whether New York’s unique full face ballot layout is required only on the paper ballot, or if only the screen display must present the full face layout. This would seem to be a minor point but it in fact determines whether or not DREs will be allowed in New York (two of the six submitted systems are from Avante, but both of these machines should be rejected at Wednesdays meeting because they provide no way for voters with visual disabilities to verify their ballot).

The Liberty/Nedap DRE submission, now banned in its home country Holland, does not create a verifiable paper full face ballot – displaying the full layout only on its touch screen. The AutoMark ballot marker, submitted by both ES&S and Premier, the company formerly known as Diebold, creates a marked full face paper ballot, but doesn’t display one onscreen, using a paging ballot display instead. The State Board Republicans will allow the Liberty DRE to be authorized, but not the AutoMarks. The Democrats will allow the AutoMarks to be authorized, but not the Liberty DRE.

The two parties’ conflicting interpretations can’t be reconciled but could lead them to agree on authorizing the only system left standing – a combination ballot scanner/ ballot marking device submitted by Sequoia. With the Sword of Damocles imposed by Judge Sharpe hanging over their heads the Commissioners must find a way to authorize at least one system this week – partisan divide or not.

Do the Right Thing

New Yorkers have clearly stated that they want accessible voting on paper ballots, and there are many benefits of going with a single voting system for the entire state. The Court has said that New York must move forward now. If the Board of Elections can bring themselves to agree at the January 23 meeting to what everyone else already knows, then New York’s 12 million registered voters have won, and in 2009 we will vote on paper ballots, not DREs.

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Bo Lipari is the executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting.
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