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November 27, 2007

Poll access for disabled heats debate

2 Otsego officials oppose ballot markers at every site


By Tom Grace
Cooperstown News Bureau

On Dec. 20, New Yorkers could find out what kind of new voting machines they’re getting, and how soon they’ll be installed.

On that date, federal District Judge Gary Sharpe of the Northern District of New York is scheduled to meet with federal Department of Justice lawyers and state elections officials.

The DOJ has sued New York for taking too long to install new, handicappedaccessible voting machines and has asked Sharpe to force the state to put a ballot- making device in every polling station next year.

These devices, known by brand names such as Auto- Mark, allow disabled voters to cast ballots independently. They come equipped with puff-sip, Braille and audio accessories meant to make voting easier for people with a variety of disabilities.

And they are meant to work with optical scanners, not computerized voting machines known as DREs, which have their own handicapped- accessible features.

For about three years, advocates of scanners and DREs have been vying for New York’s market, but Sharpe may have the last word, according to Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections.

``If we have to put a ballot- marking device in every polling place, I think that would be a nail in the coffin of the DRE,’’ Daghlian said Monday.

To put an AutoMark or similar device in every polling place would cost about $50 million of the $180 million in federal aid that New York has to transition to new equipment, said Daghlian.

With ballot markers already in place in 2008, most counties would probably opt to purchase scanners to make their systems complete and compliant with the federal Help America Vote Act.

Some counties might still opt for DREs, but the playing field would be tilted toward optical scanners, and the idea of scrapping about $50 million in equipment after one election cycle seems absurd, he said.

The DOJ has sued New York because it is the only state in the union that hasn’t replaced its lever voting machines, as mandated by HAVA. The lawsuit was launched in 2006, and the judge has already forced the state to install at least one ballot-marking device in every county.

Until about three weeks ago, it seemed New Yorkers would vote on their lever machines and a scattering of ballot markers through the 2008 presidential election, but then the DOJ asked the judge to speed up the process. Daghlian said the state Board of Elections has re- sponded by saying it could install more ballot markers in 2008 without putting one in every polling station.

According to current rules, elections commissioners in each county decide which kind of new voting machine the county will get. Otsego County Democratic Elections Commissioner Hank Nicols favors optical scanners as ``the only way to guarantee that votes will be counted accurately.’’

Because the paper ballots can be recounted by hand, if necessary, election results with the scanner system inspire confidence in the electoral system, he said.

However, Nicols said he doesn’t believe the county needs to install a ballotmarking device in every polling station.

``I think that would be an enormous waste of money,’’ he said. Most disabled people prefer to vote by absentee ballot, not in polling places, he said.

Nicols noted that only one disabled person cast a ballot with the county’s current ballot marker during the last election.

``With so few people wanting to use ballot markers, we’d be better off driving them in limos to use the one we have,’’ he said.

Disabilities advocate Chris Zachmeyer, executive director of the Catskill Center for Independence, noted that HAVA mandates that polling places have handicapped-accessible equipment ``and it says nothing about limousines.’’

H a n d i c a p p e d - a c c e s - sible equipment should be installed as soon as possible ``because that’s the law,’’ she said.

Zachmeyer said the ballot markers work well for people who are the blind, but not as well as DREs for people with dexterity and cognitive disabilities. Otsego County’s Republican Elections Commissioner Charlotte Koniuto, who has favored DREs, said she hopes Judge Sharpe does not force counties to install ballot markers in every polling station.

``The state hasn’t even certified which machines we will be able to buy eventually, so I think that would be a big mistake,’’ she said.

Daghlian said the state will begin testing voting machines in early 2008 with the goal of letting counties choose either DREs and optical scanners later in the year. If a county’s elections commissioners can’t agree on a machine, the state Board of Elections is empowered to make the choice for the county.

Sheila Ross, Otsego County’s Republican deputy elections commissioner, said the county could install new voting machines and train officials in time for the November 2008 election but couldn’t do it by the Feb. 5 presidential primary.

``That would be impossible,’’ she said.