Who said paper balloting is old-fashioned and cumbersome, a leftover from the old days? In Suffolk County, it is the way of the future.
The county unrolled a new voting system with the primary elections in September, more than three years after it lost a lawsuit against the state to challenge the implementation of a federal law requiring an end to all voting by mechanical lever machines.
The county, which has used mechanical lever machines for generations, has chosen optical scanners over electronic touch-screen voting machines, which have been the subject of controversy because they keep no physical record of votes.
With optical scanners, voters are given a paper ballot, which they mark in a booth and then insert in a central machine outside the booth that counts the vote. The scanner stores the paper ballot as a back-up to be used for recounts or when election inspectors believe a machine has malfunctioned.
The phase-out of lever-style voting machines was mandated by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which was spearheaded by the Bush administration in an attempt to streamline voting after the ballot-counting fracas in Florida following the 2000 presidential election. New York State used a different voting process than Florida, but the law found that lever machines were prone to several glitches and problems and required them, as well as all paper-punch systems like Florida’s, to be replaced with either optical scanners or touch-screen machines.
New York was the last state to use lever voting machines and Suffolk is last county in the state to make the switch.
In 2006, County Executive Steve Levy sued the New York State Board of Elections, which was charged with implementing the federal mandate, citing the lever machines’ reliability and the cost of replacing 1,500 machines. By then, New York State had asked all counties to replace lever machines with optical scanners or other devices that would ensure a paper trail if the machines malfunctioned.
Members of the Suffolk County League of Women Voters have been pushing the county to opt for paper ballots and optical scanners since 2006, in part because they say they are a low-cost alternative to touch screen machines.
Judie Gorenstein, the vice president for voter services for the league’s Huntington branch, told the county legislature in 2006 that the county would need only 514 optical scanners, which would cost about $3 million, while it would need 1,500 touch screen machines, at a cost of around $14 million, to handle its election general process. The reason, the league said, was that optical scanners are not in the booth where a voter might linger over his or her choices, so they are not subject to slowdowns in the tabulation process if voters take a long time. Touch screen machines combine the selection and tabulation process so they are prone to those delays and therefore process fewer voters in a given time.
The optical scanners also make voting easier for people with handicaps, said Tom Knobel, who serves as an assistant to Suffolk County Election Commissioner Cathy L. Richter Geier. The privacy booths are wide enough and low enough to accommodate wheelchairs. He said that it will also be easier for people to write in candidates, because the lever machines had an unwieldy window high up on the ballot where voters had to reach up to write in candidates’ names.
“We were very happy with the lever voting machines, but there’s no way to say whether the odometer wheel hitched somewhere while recording votes,” he said. “With optical scanners, the ballots will tell the tale. The ultimate form of security will be there.”
Mr. Knobel said that polling places will have dark pens on hand to ensure that people mark their ballots clearly. He added that, if the optical scanner cannot read markings, it will immediately inform voters, who can re-mark and resubmit their ballots.
The ballots themselves will not have any personal information on them, and people will still check in at their polling places in the same manner they do now.
Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in a July issue of The Suffolk Times.