Thursday, January 24, 2008

The SBOE Decision on Voting Machines: What Does It All Mean?

There's been some confusion in the press about the State Board's decision on voting machines. Does this mean New York will now replace its lever machines with paper ballots and "optical scan" machines that read those ballots (something many election integrity advocates have been hoping for)?

Well, not necessarily. What happened in Saratoga yesterday was that the Board approved three types of "accessible" voting units -- called "ballot marking devices" -- that will allow disabled voters to fill out paper ballots in this fall's elections. One of these machines will be placed in every polling site in New York beginning in September. But most New Yorkers will continue to vote on lever machines until 2009. In accordance with a federal court order, in 2009, the lever machines will either be replaced with DREs (touchscreen machines that directly record votes and print a paper trail -- much reviled by many activists) or "optical scanners" which can count paper ballots filled out by hand or by ballot marking devices (like the ones approved for purchase yesterday).

So what's the big deal about the State Board's decision? First, it was (for the time being) a rejection of full-face DREs, which the Brennan Center has long opposed. Second, it makes it much more likely that come 2009, counties will not purchase these full-face DREs, even if the State Board authorizes them for purchase to replace the lever machines.

Why? Buying full-face DREs in 2009 won't make any economic sense. Counties will already have bought and used (and continue to use) ballot marking devices that produce paper ballots. Adding a couple of scanners to each polling place will be far cheaper than buying DREs.

Plus, from an election administration perspective, having one system -- that allows voters to fill out paper ballots (whether by hand or ballot marking device), and then reads those ballots with an electronic scanner (with all systems running on the same software, developed by the same vendor) -- is a lot simpler than having two systems -- one system for disabled voters that produces paper ballots, and an entirely different system (from an entirely different vendor with entirely different software), that records votes directly onto a computer without a paper ballot.

This also means it's unlikely the Brennan Center will be making our way to court over voting machine issues in New York. At least for now.

For further thoughts on the Board's decision yesterday, go here.

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