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Counting on Chaos at the Polls

Counting on Chaos at the Polls

New York Times 11/18/2007

New York State elections officials have been so embarrassingly slow in figuring out how to buy new voting machines that the federal government has stepped in to clean up the mess. The trouble is that Washington could make things a whole lot worse.

In 2002, responding to the disastrous elections in Florida two years before, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which provided federal money to help states modernize their voting machines. New York’s Legislature, never known for acting quickly, finally passed a law enabling the changes in 2005.

But the state then fell so far behind the rest of the country in modernizing the system and installing new machines that the Justice Department sued it in 2006. Now the department wants the United States District Court in Washington to appoint a special master to oversee the replacement of New York’s voting machines by next year’s elections.

Hold on, here. Are we talking about next year’s presidential elections? And next year’s Congressional and state elections? The idea of sweeping out clunky old voting machines and sweeping in new and untried machines sounds as if some exasperated bureaucrat decided, O.K., time’s up, change the machines now, no matter what.

That is not a good idea. A big statewide election is not the time or place to try out unseasoned technology. A better solution would be for the federal government to demand that New York get its new machines up and running by autumn 2009. That could create difficulties for New York City, because that is when residents will elect the next mayor. But Albany needs an extra year before installing new machines statewide.

There is, however, one thing the state can and should do by next fall, and that is to give New Yorkers with disabilities more help in voting. It could do so by requiring one machine for the disabled at each polling place. Those machines should be designed for the long term, so they would comply with the federal rules and not be obsolete by the next election.

Some New York voting experts like to suggest that New York’s tardiness in picking new machines has turned out to be a blessing. That is because many of the machines available a few years ago turned out to have as many bugs as a trucker’s windshield. Amazingly, though, New York’s Board of Elections appears to have left open the possibility of buying these machines, known as direct recording electronic machines, or D.R.E.’s, despite their track record and despite the fact that other states are getting rid of them.

New York should avoid that trap and focus instead on paper ballots and ballot scanners. Scanners and voting machines are cheaper and more reliable, and they provide a paper trail, which is necessary to ensure that votes are counted correctly. Every election year, we have one or two squeakers that require a recount, and the most responsible way to do that is by having back-up votes on paper.

It is easy to sympathize with Washington’s frustration; New York has moved in slow motion. But that irritation cannot result in New York’s rushing to adopt dubious technology that, however much lobbying support it has in Albany and Washington, could fail to do the job on Election Day.

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