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Vendors campaign for new voting systems here

Machines, competing for city use beginning this year, are demonstrated at the County Clerk's Office

Friday, January 05, 2007

By FABIAN ARZUAGA

ADVANCE STAFF WRITER

 

The task of replacing the city's legions of aging lever-action voting machines involves much more than updating technology.

 

Concerned citizens, election bureaucrats and eager vendors bumped heads at the Richmond County Clerk's Office in St. George yesterday, during Staten Island's first public demonstration of voting systems competing for city use beginning this year.

 

Four vendors -- Avante, ES&S, Diebold and Sequoia -- showed off the machines they hope will eventually be used in city elections.

 

Last night's demonstration is the first leg of a long journey to select, certify, purchase and install new voting machines in the city.

 

The process is required by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed after the disputed 2000 presidential election. HAVA requires states to upgrade their voting systems and replace aging machines -- the city's 7,550 lever-action machines have been used for over 40 years.

 

Despite the flow of millions of federal dollars to smooth the transition, New York state has been slow to implement changes. The Justice Department brought a lawsuit against the state last year , demanding progress in implementing the regulations.

 

"We're trying to move as responsibly as possible," said John Ravitz, executive director of city Board of Elections, which sponsored the event. "Our goal is to make this process as transparent as possible."

 

The four companies presented two types of voting machines: Direct-recording electronic machines (DRE) which use a touch-screen ballot, and "optical scanners," which electronically tabulate paper ballots that have been filled in by voters at the precinct.

 

While both systems create some sort of paper trail -- a requirement of state law -- some observers spoke strongly against the touch-screen DREs for their reliance on electronics.

 

"They're treating the voting machine like a video game," said Teresa Hommel, adding that the flashy machines have too many vulnerabilities that allow error and tampering.

 

Her organization, Where's The Paper, advocates for paper ballots and optical scanners, which it considers safer and more reliable -- the voter physically handles the legal ballot and the paper trail is simpler to follow.

 

Robert Caruso of St. George said he was impressed by the DREs' ease of use and its ability to allow a voter to change a selection before leaving the booth.

 

"I had a problem with the lever machines because if you make a mistake you need to see a judge to fix it," he said.

 

The four machines are vying for certification by the state Board of Elections. Once certified, state counties -- including New York City -- will then have a range of choices for purchasing new machines.

 

Other demonstrations will be held in the city this month, and the Board of Elections will hold a public hearing in Manhattan on Jan. 23 at 4 p.m. to hear voter opinion.

 

Officials said they hope to have a new system in place before the November 2007 elections.

 

Fabian Arzuaga is a news reporter for the Advance. He may be reached at arzuaga@siadvance.com.

 

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