Schenectady County

Public asked to help pick Schenectady County voting device

The Schenectady County Board of Elections is seeking the public’s help in choosing a voting device f
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The Schenectady County Board of Elections is seeking the public’s help in choosing a voting device for September’s primary and for 2009 elections.

Brian Quail, the Democratic elections commissioner, said the county board is seeking comments “to make sure we have left no stone unturned in terms of feedback on the decision we have to make. The decision will usher in a revolutionary change in how people cast their votes.”

The county board has posted several questions on its Web site, including types of voting machine available and how the board can help people acclimate to a new voting technology, Quail said.

The county board has set Feb. 4 as the deadline to accept public comments on its selection of a device. Comments may be directed to the Board of Elections’ link on the county’s Web site.

There will be no device available for the public to inspect. However, the county has to order a device from the state by Feb. 8. The device is called a ballot marker; it allows a person with a disability to mark a paper ballot, and the ballot is later counted by hand or by an optical scanner.

The county is only considering the purchase of a ballot marking device for this year, but in 2009 it will have to replace all of its mechanical lever machines with new technology. The new technology could include ballot-marking devices that can be coupled with direct recording electronic devices (DREDs), or can be tabulated with an optical scanner.

County boards of elections must select a machine from a list the state Board of Elections is expected to announce today, said state spokesman Robert Brehm.

The state is under federal court order to replace its mechanical lever devices as part of the Help America Vote Act. The act requires voting machines and polling places to be accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

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Quail said the county could spend up to $790,000 this year on a ballot-marking device and that the county wants to buy something compatible with the machine it has to have in place for 2009.

The state will reimburse the county for the purchase of ballot-marking devices this year, using federal money. The county, however, will have to contribute 5 percent of the total cost, Quail said.

The electronic recording devices are more expensive than scanners, Quail said. They cost $9,000 to $12,000 per machine. The county would have to purchase up to 200 of them, placing one at each polling site, he said.

Optical scanners cost $6,000 to $12,000 per machine. Each could serve several polling sites, meaning the county would have to purchase 70 to 80 of them, Quail said.

“We are not going to make a costly mistake. We have enough experience and have taken enough care to ensure that will not happen,” Quail said. “But our decision has to have community support.”

He said the county board is “mindful of the people we represent in making a decision for the hundreds of thousands of voters who will use these devices for many years.”

Neal Rosenstein of the New York Public Interest Research Group said his agency supports optical scanners as the best technology to comply with HAVA.

“The selling point for us, other than the voting process is transparent, is that it creates a permanent record of the vote. There is a piece of paper that can be checked,” he said.

Optical scanners also have a proven track record of being less intimidating than touch-screen devices.

A DRED, he said, has the “allure that it is computer that can take care of everything and we don’t have to worry about all that messy paper.”

NYPIRG also would wants the state to adopt a single voting device for use by all counties. Under the law, counties select the voting device from the list. Therefore, different counties could have different devices, even if they share the same congressional or state legislative districts.

“The state Legislature passed the buck and decided not to impede local fiefdoms of county commissioners and to let each county decide on the technology,” Rosenstein said.

Dennis Karius, chairman of the ARISE Voting Equipment Task Force, said each county should hold a public hearing prior to making a decision on purchasing new voting equipment for their county. He said his agency supports the use of ballot marking devices tied to optical scanners. “I have no trust in DREDs,” he said.

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