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Nassau County Displays its New Optical Scanner Voting Machines

This summer the Nassau County Board of Elections have been doing a “trunk show” at venues all over the area to show voters how the new optical scanner machines work. Nassau County is following the new guidelines of the Help Americans Vote Act that was passed by the federal government in October 2002 when then President George W. Bush signed it into law. The aim of the legislation was to improve and enhance voter access, prevent fraud, and modernize elections across the country. Each state was to set up its own system.

New York State Senator John J. Flanagan (R Suffolk) worked on the state’s system. “The agreement reached in the joint conference committee represents the first major overhaul of New York State’s election process in over 50 years,” said Senator John Flanagan (R-C, East Northport), chair of the Senate Elections Committee.

HAVA mandates that all states and localities upgrade many aspects of their election procedures, including their voting machines, registration processes and poll worker training. The specifics of implementation have been left up to each state, which allows for varying interpretations of the Federal law. That includes the replacement of punch card and lever voting machines. Although Suffolk County Supervisor Steve Levy tried to fight having to change their lever machines, that battle was lost.

The HAVA requirement is that all voting systems be auditable and have a permanent paper record with a hand-count audit capacity as an official record for any recount needed later. The lever machines do not have a paper trail. The new machines have a bin that collects the ballots so that in case of a problem – they can be counted. There is a paper trail.

The machines suggested were optical scanners and touch-screen voting (DRE) explained League of Women Voters Judie Gorenstein, president of the League of Women Voters of Huntington, who recently spoke at a Friends of the Bay information meeting on the issue of advocacy.

Ms. Gorenstein said in a telephone interview that the LWV of Suffolk County is “very pleased” with the new machines. Suffolk County and Nassau County have chosen the same machines but by different manufacturers so there are small differences between the ballots and the machines – “small nuances.” The important thing is, she said, “They have taken care of security; voting once; the paper ballot is scanned and dropped into a box which means that if a hand vote is needed, every ballot can be counted.”

She added that voters found the write-in votes easier than the touch-screen system. She added there was a security system in place so that if the power goes down, the machine stays on for four hours. If the optical scanner is not working there is a place to put the ballot to be counted later.

Ms. Gorenstein said The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times had negative articles on the machines. The articles, she said state, “If you get a paper ballot and make a mistake you get a second ballot and maybe a third, but no more. For a fourth vote you have to go before an election judge.”

Another possible criticism is that New York State has a “full face ballot, which means it uses one sheet of paper – so it is a lot smaller in all of the state. The propositions can be on the back of the sheet.”

She said the lever machines were bigger, but added, “If you were short you had to look up to see them.” She added, “A lot of people fill out the lottery tickets that are small and they have no problem. And, absentee ballot voters have been voting this way forever.”

Another concern is that with less machines per voting place there will be lines. Her answer to that was, “don’t go at peak times to avoid the lines.”

Ms. Gorenstein said there was a pilot project to test the voter machines upstate and the major problem was an issue of privacy. “People could see your vote. In Suffolk County we have privacy booths and a sleeve to put the ballot in as does Nassau County. All of these machines have been used all over the country.

“Florida initially bought the DRE machines and replaced them with the optical scanner machines,” she said.

You will remember that it was the “story of the falling chads” that started the issue of voting differences in the nation that HAVA is trying to correct.

NC’s New Machines

Nassau County Board of Elections Commissioner William Biamonte, (D) said, “The new Nassau County voting machines look like giant recycle bins with a laptop on top and that is actually what they are. The actual scanner is contained in the laptop. The bin is to collect the ballots after the vote. The voter walks up to the machine and inserts a ballot – like putting a dollar bill into a vending machine.

“It can be inserted frontward or backward – the machine can read it. Just don’t fold the ballots. On the website of the NC Board of Elections there is an instructional video.

“The new voting machine is also programmed to make sure you vote for all the candidates. It checks both undervotes and overvotes. If you under-voted it means you didn’t vote for everyone you could. In that case the machines gives you two options on the touch screen. A red button and a green button.

“If you under-voted you have the option of taking out the ballot and fixing it or to press green and that will be your choice.

“If it is an over-vote you have to get a new ballot. It is all very straightforward,” said Commissioner Biamonte.

He added, “We have scheduled demonstrations to continue throughout the primary [when they will be used for the first time] and until right before the general election. We will have a kiosk in Roosevelt Field for around the clock demonstrations for the public. A radio station will be there asking people to come down to see how they work.”

Commissioner Biamonte has issues with the whole process. He said, “The state mandated we use the system but sent minimal funding for it. They sent $ 700,000 and we have 900,000 voters so any way you look at it there is a financial problem. We are trying to do the best we can with our funds.

“We send out voter check cards telling people they are registered to vote and giving them their voting place. If the cards come back to us as undeliverable we purge the names from the system. We send out 900,000 cards.”

Commissioner Biamonte said they will use the cards to instruct people to watch a new training video they have created. “We have created an amazing public training video. We hired a TR [Theodore Roosevelt] look alike and he talks about the different machines and how to go and mark the ballot and scan it in.

“The cards will have a red reverse message telling residents to go to NassauVotes.com to see how the machines work,” he explained. “So we are being entrepreneurial in that we are using what is an annual expense and using it to create something out of nothing.”

The new machines will operate in a privacy booth. Most people will be able to use the optical scanning machine. For those who are challenged – blind, paraplegic, or physically handicapped in some way – there are “handicap” machines. They come with instructions and a keyboard. There is a tactile component, audio component; and a sip and puff device. It is a tube held in the mouth that you blow into, to work the machine.

Commissioner Biamonte said challenged people are often very familiar with the special machines and can move around the keyboard quickly even with limited physical mobility. The average voter will mark the ballots with pencil or pen.

Cautionary Tale

The most important thing the education process is trying to teach is not to overvote. If someone votes for two people for the same position the machine will ask to override that vote. The problem he said is that some people might allow the override out of embarrassment, rather than taking more time at the machine and filling out a new ballot.

Currently there is a court case being looked into at the Brennan Center of Justice (Justice William Brennan) as well as the NAACP, for protective class groups.

“It is a programming flaw,” said Commissioner Biamonte.

He said he and Commissioner John DeGrace (R) have both been critical of how the state has rolled out the machines and they are starting their own lawsuit since they view the machines as dysfunctional. [The NC Board of Elections always has two commissioners, a Democrat and a Republican. This reporter was unable to reach Mr. DeGrace or Deputy Commissioner Carol Busketta (R). Ms. Busketta was in a meeting about petitions. Mr. DeGrace was returning from vacation.]

Commissioner Biamonte said scientists are looking at the machines as to their hack-ability. “The California Secretary of State hired computer scientists to look into their hack-ability. I am not a big fan of electronic voting. It comes down to that the president and congress were embarrassed with George W. Bush being elected by the Supreme Court.

“The Help America Vote Act said there needed to be a change. They are forcing us to correct a problem that didn’t exist in New York State. In Florida there were different voting systems. When they wanted to check the vote there was no one way to count them. It was a dysfunctional system. Here in Nassau County when there was a question of the voting figures we found a difference of 386 votes out of 270,000. It shows that our machines are capable of a recount, and both sides agreed.

“The new system uses paper ballots and machines with secret-proprietary software that will count the votes.

“We had a 50, 60 year system that both parties agreed was reliable, safe and untamperable. We are putting in a system with a horrible track record all over the country.

“Now the system is going to be run by a corporation - that are not elected officials – and they will not give us the programs to run the system. It is a ridiculous system. Why replace a system that works with a system that will cost millions of dollars to taxpayers,” he said.

As Mr. Biamonte said, The HAVA regulations say that municipalities have to replace punch card machines and lever voting machines. They also have to build the overvote and undervote corrections into the system. They also want alternate languages available and a handicap voting machine. (Suffolk County has provided a website suffolkvotes.com in both Spanish and English.) It is an initiative to modernize elections across the nation.

The Cost to Vote

Commissioner Diamante was concerned with the cost. He said, “We are forced by the new system to spend $15 million in educating people about the technology as well as other ongoing costs.

“They print ballots that cost 55 cents apiece, they are 8 and a half inches by 24 inches. They have to be purchased from the voting machine company at a number that is 110 percent of voters. We have 990,000 voters and we have to add 10 percent for errors. In 2008, 645,000 people came out to vote – and it was a high turnout. So if we have to order 110 percent for the voting —- I did a graph and over four years we would have purchased 340,000 more than needed.

“Using those numbers, and at 55 cents a copy, those extra ballots will cost Nassau County a great deal of money to print and it will take $2.1 million out of our general fund.

“Why do we need 110 percent? We have to assume they will all show up to vote,” he added.

Education Costs

Another cost is for educating the public on the use of the machines. It is a major program and involves staff members going out to educate voters; and testing the machines to be sure they power up and the screens work.

“We have had problems. There is also a major voter education for the election inspectors whose average age is 72. They are often retired people who can be there from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. for not a lot of pay. The board of elections is a bipartisan group. The commissioners are appointed by the chairman of their party. The board gets recommendations from the zone leaders – for instance, for 20 districts they get 40 recommendations - in order to have a bi-partisan election. They watch each other and those who are politically active are the people who support their communities,” he said.

Mr. Biamonte has been at his job with the Board of Elections for five years. He said, “The staff at the board of elections are also party activists and we have to know they are good Democrats and Republicans.”

As for the election inspectors, Commissioner Biamonte said, “We have to train them and test them to be sure they can boot up the machines; as well as training new inspectors; and not getting funded for the extra work. Our staff has been going out on the weekends such as at the Bellmore Street Fair; and working overtime with no reimbursement to the county – and for no reason. What problem are we trying to fix?

“We are in state court now before Judge Woodard with a request for a court ordered discovery on the machine’s technology. The briefs are identical for the state board and the voting machine company. The judge ordered a court ordered discovery and we are going to produce a report on how the machines work. The reason is that we tested the software and there are problems we discovered.

“In California, Bruce McPherson was appointed Secretary of State by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Debra Bowen has picked up the mantle. California uses optical scanners and Mr. McPherson contacted scientists at UC Davis and UC Berkley to analyze them. They published a report that these machines can be easily hacked in a matter of minutes. Someone can plant a virus that allows them off site to monitor the voting as it goes on and they can get the votes to disappear without a trace. How do you have faith in a system like that.”

In his office, Commissioner Biamonte said there are nine-four inch binders filled with horror stories on the optical scanners. “My opinion is that this technology is not ready for prime time. This is the premature deployment of an immature technology.”

Mr. Biamonte said the county still has 1,400 of the old lever machines. They now have 1,200 of the new optical scanner machines as well as 450 of the handicap accessible machines.

“The reason for the difference in numbers is that the lever machines can only be used by 850 voters. If they had 1,000 voters, they needed a second machine. The optical scanner can hold up to 3,500 voters responses.

“At each polling place there will be one optical scanner for each district and one handicap accessible scanner for the entire polling place.

“In a lot of the polling places where two lever machines were needed, they will get one optical scanner instead.

“To give a look at the scope of the issue, there are 11,070 election districts in NC and 390 polling places.

“There are 73 polling places in NC that only have one election district. The other 320 have numerous districts. The McKenna School in Massapequa has 12 districts,” he said.

The NC System Works!

Mr. Biamonte said there is a move to get a non-partisan committee to appoint the inspectors but said it doesn’t seem to work. “Everyone has an agenda,” he said. “In California they tried to set up an independent committee and people had to send in their résumés. The system didn’t work.”

The Nassau County Board of Elections works as a bi-partisan committee with a Democratic and a Republican Commissioner appointed by their party chairman. At the polling places the inspectors are both Democrats and Republicans so that they keep watch on each other to keep the system fair. “It works,” Mr. Biamonte said.

FYI: The Village of Bayville, in conjunction with the Nassau County Board of Elections is holding a “demo” for the new voting machines. The demonstration takes place on Thursday, Sept. 16 from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at the Bayville Community Center at 88 Bayville Avenue. The event is open to everyone.

The NCBOE has been traveling around the county demonstrating the machine to voters this summer. They were in Oyster Bay in July at Cruise Night and again on Aug. 6 at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and Beach at the

Music Under the Stars Grass Roots Tribute. The machines were also at the Friday, Aug. 20 Farmer’s Market in Oyster Bay.