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November 17, 2007

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Essex and Franklin Counties of Northeastern New York

 

The poor performance of an electronic voting machine in Essex County didn't seem to bode well for a transition from the old gear-and-lever war horses in use for decades, but then again, the advent of that style back in the 1920s wasn't all that promising either.

 

SPECTRUM: Voting machines raised ire both now and then

New electronic election machine earns no-confidence vote

 

By KIM SMITH DEDAM

Staff Writer

 

After almost 90 years, they still do the job.

 

On election night, blue curtains -- some faded in folds, some plaid, some striped -- were drawn shut in New York millions of times, a simple but efficient way to guarantee privacy for one of America's greatest rights: voting.

 

It's easy to do, using the metal tabs on the old lever machines; they make a small click when flicked into place. They don't lock, so people can check their vote manually.

 

Or change can their minds and make another choice.

 

The half-ton mechanical hulk doesn't require electricity or special software installed by trained technicians. The vote is cast when the red-handled lever, which also opens the curtains, is pulled back.

 

Each vote is counted in the turn of a tiny cog buried in the back of the machine.

 

20 MINUTES PER BALLOT

 

On Nov. 6, at the Essex County Board of Elections office, another kind of voting machine was taken for a test run.

 

By 8:30 p.m., 28 people had voted on the AutoMARK, made by Election Systems & Software, a company headquartered in Omaha, Neb.

 

The machine was selected and installed specifically for voters with disabilities; the screen is adjustable and the print size can be enlarged.

 

It cost about $4,000, according to Republican Election Commissioner Lewis Sanders, including programming, software setup and printing ballots.

 

"Each time we use one, it has to be reprogrammed by the company's service people," he said.

 

The trial run took about 20 minutes per ballot compared to two or three minutes per voter on the lever machines.

 

The AutoMARK isn't the device Essex County intends to use to replace the old lever-style machines when it complies with the 2002 Help America Vote Act that makes electronic versions mandatory, but it's likely the new ones will also be of the touch-screen variety, so officials watched the experiment with interest -- and dismay.

 

TOUCH-SCREEN ERRORS

 

The AutoMARK had issues in tabbing a write-in test ballot.

 

Tapping M, the machine recorded L; tapping I, the machine recorded H; tapping C, the machine recorded B; and so on, always recording the letter before the one tapped on the touch screen.

 

In trying to write-in Mickey Mouse, the word looked like: LHBJDX LNTRD.

 

The AutoMARK had to be programmed to issue the specific ballot (one of 18 in Essex County) a voter uses.

 

Test-ballot preparation took several minutes as the machine whirred through a recalibration.

 

When it was ready, each political race came up on the screen with candidates listed top to bottom.

 

It's supposed to take a light tap with a stick-type pointer on a blank oval next to a candidate's name to cast a vote.

 

It did not always work.

 

Sometimes it took several taps, consecutively harder, before the candidate's slot lit up bright yellow, and the oval filled in.

 

Another swift tap on a button at the bottom right scrolled the screen to the next race.

 

In the end, if a vote was skipped, the machine spit out the message "under voted," even if someone didn't want to vote for more than one candidate.

 

THUMBS-DOWN

 

The problem with improperly calibrated screens is not a new one.

 

Election Systems & Software equipment was at the heart of a General Election debacle in Sarasota, Fla., in 2006 (see Web box).

 

Most elections workers in Essex County gave this year's test run a thumbs-down, envisioning a future of long lines, given the additional 15 minutes per ballot.

 

Sanders said the county is still looking at various voting systems to replace the stable of automatic lever machines, anticipating costs near $300,000 to buy 75 to 80 machines.

 

"I don't know how the county could afford it," he said.

 

And for every election, including those for fire and school officials, a service technician would have to physically come to Essex County to install new software to reprogram machines. And the electronic systems have to be kept in a central, temperature-controlled environment, which means transporting them to and from polls.

 

"We're looking to put one per town next year," Sanders said.

 

ETHICAL ISSUES

 

A report last August by newsman Dan Rather on HDNet television, a high definition network, revealed Election Systems & Software equipment -- specifically the iVotronic -- is made in "sweatshops" in the Philippines, where workers earn between $2.15 to $2.50 per day.

 

According to the report, manufacturing problems were often ignored on the production line, and a quality-control check included "shaking" the machine.

 

The U.S. Election Assistance Commission has since challenged the election-equipment manufacturer's practice with a notice of noncompliance.

 

STORMY ADVENT

 

The bulk and inconveniences of the behemoths used for so long by voting Americans have long since become familiar routine to the election process. But those gear-and-lever machines, too, whipped up strong emotions once upon a time.

 

Designed and then first built by the Automatic Voting Machine Corporation in 1892 in Lockport, the units caused a raging controversy in 1922 when they went into widespread use.

 

The New York Times carried daily reports as New York City rejected a $399,500 bid from the voting machine company to provide 425 machines at the rate of 100 a month to the city by Sept. 1, 1922.

 

Then, the worker issue was a local one, when the NYC Labor Council argued "the city could not purchase supplies from a corporation (that) did not pay the prevailing rate of wages and did not maintain an eight-hour day."

 

And the city Board of Elections heard from aldermen in Rochester who, at the time, had been using the machines for nearly 20 years.

 

Those officials complained of possible Republican shenanigans.

 

"We in Rochester are against the machine, because we are compelled to vote blindfolded. While we have never charged the Republicans with fraud in connection with these voting machines, we always have been suspicious, because since the machines were installed we have never been able to elect a Democratic Mayor, which we used to do occasionally," former Rochester alderman Jacob Gerling told commissioners in 1922.

 

TOO CUMBERSOME

 

In other inquiry, officials in Chicago took issue with the size of the units.

 

"The great trouble with this machine in a city like Chicago is that it is too cumbersome to handle, weighing approximately 1,100 pounds and requires the attention of a mechanic at each installation." (New York Times, May 16, 1922)

 

The Times followed the story for months as the purchase mired in legal action with testimony on back-room negotiations and price hikes.

 

The machines, sold to the cities of Syracuse and Rochester for $750 and $775 apiece in 1918, were bid in New York City at $940.

 

By 1925, that metropolis had purchased 75.

 

There are more than 8,000 lever voting machines there now.

 

When they are at last put out of service, there will be tons of scrap metal.

 

"They print ballots in five different languages in the city," Sanders said.

 

SLOW TRANSITION

 

Essex County has 58 automatic voting machines, 29 tons total.

 

Crown Point and Westport have machines dating to 1922 and 1931.

 

Essex County Democratic Election Commissioner David Mace said old lever machines retired in other states, such as Connecticut, are selling for $40 apiece on eBay.

 

As history repeats itself, Department of Justice legal action pushing states to switch voting systems is bogged down in the courts.

 

And touch-screen machines, with ethical questions about how they are made, can't be manufactured fast enough to gear up for next year.

 

"They can't make them fast enough," Sanders said.

 

Due to cost and sheer logistics, it is likely the old lever machines will be rolled from their corners in town halls again next year.

 

They'll have some familiar handlers.

 

County election workers, mostly women who have run election-night polling places for more than 25 years, are accustomed to the hulking machines that fold into a box about the size of a big freezer.

 

Lucy Connell, of Westport, counted back to when she began working election night.

 

"Well, it was before my husband ran for office," she said.

 

"And he's been in office six years."

 

Anabelle Kurtz, staffing the Board of Elections office in Essex County, remembered when she was called in to serve when a friend ended up short one worker 25 years ago.

 

"I'm still here," she quipped.

 

Sanders said there is just not enough time or money to gear up with new equipment for 2008 elections.

 

"Here's the whole key," he said, "the money. Essex County is not in any position to buy new machines."


A day after the vote, Elizabethtown Town Clerk Debbie Brooks stands by a locked voting machine, which, like all those used during the election, won-t be put away until the final count is tallied.
Staff Photo/Kim Smith Dedam /


The AutoMARK touch-screen voting machine was tested at the Essex County Board of Elections office during the Nov. 6 general election.
Staff Photo/Kim Smith Dedam /


An up-close look at one of the oldest voting machines in Essex County.
Staff Photo/Kim Smith Dedam /

This Westport beauty is one of the oldest voting machines in Essex County.
Staff Photo/Kim Smith Dedam /

kdedam@pressrepublican.com

 

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