Thursday, February 7, 2008

THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 7, 2008

Northern Westchester Bureau Chief
Catherine Wilson


Thousands Of County Residents Denied Right to Vote By New York State Lawmakers In Defiance Of Federal Law

In 2002, the federal government passed the “Help America Vote Act” (HAVA). - is legislation mandated that “voting systems must allow all voters, including those with disabilities, to vote independently and privately, by January 1, 2006.” To date, New York State is the only state in the nation still in violation of this federal law. On January 16 of this year, Judge Gary Sharpe, of the United States District Court, issued a court order against the State of New York noting that “New York remains in noncompliance with the voting systems requirements,” and that New York State “law and procedure must give way to federal law requirements.”


The federal court strongly admonished New York in its decision: “This Court finds that the defendants’ unacceptable and continual delays in meeting the voting systems requirements of HAVA….. has made full compliance with these HAVA requirements in time for New York’s February 2008 presidential preference primary….and November 2008 federal general election, not currently possible”.

The District Court found no obstacles to New York’s ability to provide “ballot marking devices and/or voting systems accessible to persons
with disabilities available for use in every polling place” in time for the fall 2008 elections and ordered that this “must be accomplished”.

Several state and local groups for the handicapped have been working since the inception of HAVA with NYS Assemblywoman Sandy Galef
(Democrat, 90th District) to address the accessibility issues raised by this law. Along with Assemblywoman Galef, these groups have been testing different voting devices and systems to determine which best serves their needs. Since 2002, these groups and their members have proposed modi-fications to the voting devices which have been addressed and adopted by several manufacturers. The selections
were narrowed down to three systems: voting machines by Sequoia ImageCast, ES&S, and Premier AutoMARK.

On January 24, the State Board of Elections met to review the modifications made to these systems and vote whether they were in compliance with the ballot display provisions in the federal law.

Despite the strong and clear order from the federal courts, as of the date of the latest meeting of the New York State Board of Elections,
the selection of voting systems for the fall elections is still up for grabs in New York. At the State Board of Elections meeting to adopt
the official voting devices, the votes to approve the systems endorsed by the advocacy groups for the handicapped split along party lines: the Democratic representative, Stanley Zalen, voting in favor of the modi-fications, the newly-appointed Republican representative, Todd Valentine, voting against.

Note to Guardian readers: The New York State Board of Elections may be reached at 40 Steuben Street, Albany, NY 12207-2108; by phone at 518-474-8100; via fax at 518-486-4068, or email at http://www.election.state.ny.us/.

On January 31, Assemblywoman Galef held a press conference, originally scheduled to announce the success of her’s and the advocacy groups’ efforts “to provide the right to private and independent votes for all”.

Instead, Ms. Galef spoke of the continuing frustration faced by those with special needs in getting New York State legislators
to acknowledge and address their rights. In a press release dated January 24, Ms. Galef reported “This is a victory for all voters because it assures that their vote will always be counted.” Reporting the latest rejection by the New York State Board of Elections at her January 31 news conference from the steps of the Westchester County Board of Elections, Ms. Galef declared, “The issue of selecting voting machines is big business. A lot of the big businesses sent contributions to elected officials and lots of money was spent in Albany to get specific machines. And, you know, the bad guys lost out. The DREs lost out and now they’re taking legal action to go forward”.

At issue is the selection of Direct Electronic Recording Machines (DREs) versus Optical Scan Machines. DREs use computerized
touchscreens to process votes. Optical devices scan printed ballots and can allow for audio interfaces while still providing paper ballots. The
advocacy groups prefer the optical devices since DREs are confusing for those with cognitive and other handicaps. Further, as Ms. Galef
noted, the optical scanners allow for “enlarging the letters so people who are visually handicapped can vote on it”. The opposition to the optical scanners, Ms. Galef continued, “means you can’t have everything on one page because you make the letters that much bigger. Well that’s good for our disabled community”.

“We have court maneuvers, we have people that are trying to get DREs into the mix” Ms. Galef warned, “so we need to continue our
vigilance. We hope the public will speak out for real democracy and make sure that their votes count. The Board of Elections, where we
are standing; the commissioners are going to have to make a decision in nine days as to which machines they are going to choose from.”
Reginald LaFayette, the Democratic Commissioner for the Westchester Board of Elections did make a brief appearance at Assemblywoman
Galef ’s conference but declined any comment. Carolee Sunderland, the Republican Commissioner, did not attend the conference. Neither
Westchester Commissioner responded to The Guardian’s requests for comment as of press time.

Ms. Galef remarked “This is the most grass-roots effort that I have ever seen”. These efforts were evident at her conference as several local and state advocacy groups addressed their support for voting accessibility. George Klein, Group Chair of the Sierra Club asked “Why is the Sierra Club interested in this issue? While we advocate for the environment and public health, we need to have politicians
in office who pay attention to the public and advocacy groups like the Sierra Club. If politicians can get into office without honest votes, they won’t pay attention to the citizens and democracy will start to fail. We want transparent, verifiable voting technology”.

Lisa Tarricone, Director of Systems Advocacy for the Westchester Independent Living Center, spoke of the efforts of the local handicapped
community on this issue: “We’ve been advocating for the use of optical scan voting since HAVA was first adopted in 2002. We’ve sat
in on joint commission hearings, committee hearings over the past couple of years. We’ve missed one major presidential election due to
politicking. Our votes were held hostage due to that process and we hope we’re not going to lose the next one which is very important to our
community’s needs.”

Sherry DeFrancesco, from Mount Kisco, representing the Westchester Council for the Blind and Westchester Disabled on the
Move, addressed the anticipation of the handicapped community: “We’re very excited. We’ve never been able to vote privately and independently in the history of the United States”.

Her emotional plea for her community “to get everything we’re hoping for” was felt by all present. She addressed the use of paper ballots
as actually preferable for the blind community “Because the scanner reads it back to you”. George Klein interjected, “With a DRE, there’s no
way for a blind person to know if the ballot was marked. With an optical scan as a ballot marking device with a paper ballot, you can put it in
and the device will read it back to you to double-check and tell you if it’s properly marked.”

Representatives of the handicapped community present noted the advantages of the optical scanners: They believed that these devices
would enable the mentally-handicapped community to vote due to larger font sizes, color-contrast capabilities, and audio feedback. The
optical scanners with audio components would also enable voters with learning disabilities such as dyslexia to confirm their votes. Optical
scanners can also show only one election race at a time to reduce confusion for a voter who may be overwhelmed by the multitude of choices on a large ballot.

With a paper ballot, voters with dexterity issues would not have to manipulate icons on a computer screen. The local advocates noted
that voters with special needs would be provided with a private booth to allow them extra time and privacy so they would not experience
stress and concern of delaying others. Optical scanners can also enlarge print so voters can verify their votes – a requirement of the
federal law.

In addition to the disabled community, several citizens groups are also interested in this issue. Margaret Yonco-Haines, the Executive Director of Mid-Hudson Verified Voting, noted “This is a non-partisan issue”. She drew a laugh from those present when she noted, “If I stop somebody randomly on the street and ask them ‘do you care if when you go to vote that your vote is counted and recorded
accurately?’ amazingly 100% of them say yes”. Ms. Yonco-Haines noted “The choice of voting on paper ballots and the use of optical scanners is only the first step. We must further ensure stringent procedures and processes to ensure the security of our elections and to maintain the openness to public observation and participation in our elections. We cannot do that on electronic voting machines. I call on the State Board of Elections to not retreat from this position”.

Teresa Hommel, chair of the task force of Election Integrity of Community Church of New York Unitarian Universalist, remarked
“Democracy means that ‘We the People’ choose our government offi-cials and we delegate power to them to run our government. Elections
alone don’t make democracy and it takes more than voters. We know this because totalitarian and fascist governments have held lots of phony elections. This is why the State Board’s decision is so important”.

Addressing the concerns of DRE computer systems malfunctioning during an election, Ms. Hommel noted the superiority of paper ballots
and held up an example to show “If you press your pencil as hard as you can and a mark doesn’t appear next to your candidate, you can just go and sharpen your pencil. You don’t have to take the pencil out of service for the rest of the day. If I mark my candidate, the mark doesn’t suddenly jump over to another candidate. The paper ballot doesn’t crash. People think high-tech is so great. But for elections, we need to keep it simple so we can get it right”.

Allegra Dengler, of the Citizens for Voting Integrity, expressed her concern with “the backroom deals in Albany”. A press release from
her office on January 31 noted her group’s concern with the recent vote from the State Board of Elections surmising that the split
vote “looks like a frivolous move on the part of Todd Valentine to create confusion in the process in order to give the decision back to
Judge Sharpe”. The release continued “It is absolutely disrespectful to the disabled community”. The Citizens for Voting Integrity noted
that ballot markers rank high in evaluations by disabled voters and recommended one system, the AutoMARK, in particular.
Galef noted that New York’s delay in adopting an accessible voting system did serve a purpose since “We have learned from the mistakes
of other states like California who installed DRE systems and are slow tossing them out”. In addition, the other states have all noted the
added expense of DREs (approximately $9,000 each) compared to optical scanners – an increase of up to two-thirds greater. Further, Ms.
Galef noted that DRE computerized manufacturers want an additional 15 – 18% of the purchase price per year for licensing fees and “we
would need three times more DREs than scanners. Optical scanners are a savings to the taxpayers.”

Ms. Galef concluded by noting “To me, this whole issue is so simple. Paper ballots can always be recounted. Things that are on our
computer we all know from home can get lost, be changed. We have high profile elections that come in close. We want to be sure that the
Board of Elections can count every one of our votes. We believe in optical scan. I don’t think there’s any citizen out there yelling for DREs.
The only people that really want the DRE’s are the companies and the political people who have an interest in those companies. The
public is with us”.

As of the 2000 Census, there were 52,000 disabled residents in Westchester County. While all of them may not be eligible to vote,
that number does not include people with other special needs such as early dementia or dyslexia. Because New York State is still in defiance
of the Federal Voting Accessibility Law, for the current presidential primary election, there were tens of thousands of our neighbors who
were denied their right to cast a private and independent vote!


Northern Westchester Round-Up

Armonk: A senior from the Byram Hills High School, Jeremy Blum, was selected as one of 40 finalists in Intel’s national Science Talent
Search winning a $5,000 scholarship and an Intel laptop. The award for the eventual national winner is a $100,000 college scholarship.
Blum expects to attend Cornell University in the fall.

Mt. Pleasant: The Mount Pleasant Town Court is a test center for the use of video technology in the court system. The town will allow inmates to attend arraignments and court appearances without necessitating leaving the county jail.

Ossining: Assemblywoman Sandy Galef announced a series of town meetings with constituents to discuss local issues and the proposed state budget. Future meetings will be held on February 7th and 9th at the Field Library in Peekskill and the Putnam Valley library.

Valhalla: Westchester Community College joined more than 1,000 colleges and universities nationwide for a Focus the Nation teach-in on January 30. The simultaneous broadcast from sites around the country included scientists, government leaders, and environmental activists.


– Catherine Wilson

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