By Patricia Breakey
Area voters will have their first exposure to ballot-marking devices in Tuesday's primaries.
Almost six years after the Help America Vote Act was signed into law by President Bush on Oct. 29, 2002, the machines will be available to disabled voters in New York. The devices are said to resolve problems caused by punch-card voting systems in the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
Locally, there are primaries in Otsego and Schoharie counties, but voters in Delaware and Chenango counties will have to wait until November to see the automated voting machines in action.
All four counties are planning to have one new machine available at every polling place for disabled voters, but the majority of voters will still use the old-fashioned lever-operated machines this year.
The new machines, referred to as BMDs, are equipped with a monitor, speakers and a control that looks like it was borrowed from a video game. The hand control has large, color-coded buttons that are labeled in Braille. Earphones are used to allow the voters to listen to the names and mark the ballots privately.
On Thursday, Robin Alger, Delaware County Republican deputy election commissioner, demonstrated the voting process on a BMD, a process that can take 30 minutes.
Alger said a modified version of the ballot-counting process is being used this year to tally votes cast on the BMDs, but next year all votes cast will be counted by the optical scanner.
It comes with instructions
The monitor displays a simple set of instructions to teach the voter how to use the hand control, directing the voter to push different buttons to advance through the demonstration and eventually get to the ballot.
The machine reads every position and the names of the candidates for each contest. The voter makes a choice, which is marked on the ballot displayed on the monitor.
An option for write-in votes is available, but that process is laborious, going through the alphabet letter by letter to pick out each letter in the candidate's name.
When the ballot is complete, the machine gives the voter the option of reviewing the choices and making changes. Finally, the voter indicates that the ballot is complete, and the machine prints out a paper ballot identical to the paper ballots marked by hand by non-disabled voters.
The paper ballot is then fed into the optical scanner, which registers the vote.
On the BMD, the optical scanner is at one end, with the other end holding the monitor used by disabled voters. This allows people to line up and feed their ballots into the scanner as someone else marks his or her ballot on the monitor.
There are privacy sleeves in place to shield the monitor from view and to shield the ballots as they are fed into the scanner.
Next year, total change
While both types of machines will be available this year, that situation is expected to be short-lived.
"We are going to have a one-year transition, and then in '08 we will say a sweet goodbye to the old machines," said Bill Campbell, Delaware County Republican elections commissioner.
Next year, all voters will be using optical scanners, as the county and state comply with the federal Help America Vote Act. Most voters, however, will simply mark paper ballots and not have to use BMDs.
Campbell said the county purchased 30 of the imageCAST BMDs manufactured by Sequoia Voting Systems at a cost of $12,500 each. Federal funding was used to cover most of the cost, with each county responsible for 5 percent of the total. In Delaware the cost was $20,592.83.
New York state received about $220 million in federal HAVA money, according to a report from the Election Assistance Commission. By the end of 2007, the state had spent just more than $16 million.
Sheila Ross, Otsego County deputy elections commissioner, said the county has 37 machines.
"There could be glitches," Ross said. "But we have tested all of ours and we believe they are going to be OK."
Ross and Campbell each said that they don't expect many disabled voters to come to the polling places because they are accustomed to using absentee ballots.
"A majority of the people are happy with absentee ballots," Ross said. "Especially in November, when they don't have to come out in bad weather to vote."
Campbell said any voter who wishes to vote using a paper BMD ballot this year will have to vote the same way a disabled voter casts a ballot.
Helen Benlisa, Catskill Center for Independence Project HAVA coordinator, said she has been busy telling people that the BMDs are finally here.
"There is never going to be one perfectly accessible machine to cover the range of disabilities," Benlisa said. "It has taken a lot to get us this far, and it's going to take a generation to adapt to the BMDs. It's a learning curve."
The HAVA Act is designed to:
ä Replace punch card and lever voting systems.
ä Create the Election Assistance Commission to assist in the administration of federal elections.
ä Establish minimum election administration standards.
HAVA mandates that all states and localities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including their voting machines, registration processes and poll worker training.
Polls will be open Tuesday from noon to 9 p.m.
Patricia Breakey can be reached at 746-2894 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.