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NYC wants its old mechanical-lever voting machines back

State-of-the-art optical scanners that cost $95M are too impractical for upcoming mayoral elections, officials say

June 14, 2013 02:32 PM ET

Computerworld - The New York State Assembly on Wednesday approved a measure that allows the New York City Board of Elections to replace state-of-the art optical scanning voting machines around the city with decades-old mechanical-lever machines for the city's mayoral primary in September.

The State Senate is considering a similar proposal, but has not yet approved it.

If it does, the mechanical-lever machines, purchased by the city in the 1960s, will be taken out of storage and redeployed in all five boroughs.

The decision to use the old lever machines instead of newer optical scanners, which the city spent $95 million on a few years ago, apparently has to do with timing, according to The New York Times.

The primary election is slated for Sept. 10. If no candidate gets 40% of the votes, the city will hold a runoff election two weeks later, on Sept. 24.

According to the Times, city election officials are concerned about the practicality of using optical scan voting machines given the short gap between the primary and runoff election.

With optical scan systems, voters mark their choices on a pre-printed paper ballot sheet and feed it into the machine that then scans and records the ballot. The machines maintain a paper trail that can be used to manually verify results in close elections.

According to election officials, it takes much more time to manually count results from the optical scanners, and to reset the machines, than it does with the old lever machines. The city's Board of Elections has said that in order to use optical scan voting machines without a hitch, they would need at least 60 days between the primary and the runoff elections.

The city will bring back the optical scanners for the general elections in November and all other elections in future.

A spokeswoman for the NYC Board of Elections did not respond to requests for comment.

The possible return of the mechanical machines, and the justifications for their use, had some election watchdogs scratching their heads in puzzlement.

"Basically, this has more to do with a dysfunctional New York City Elections Board than any real need to return to lever machines," said Bo Lipari, founder of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, a group that keeps an eye on election integrity issues. "The current scanners are quite capable of handling the possible run-off elections, and the State Board of Elections has even submitted a plan for doing so to the New York City Board."

Using the lever machines would again segregate disabled voters, and allow them to be identified because they will be the only voters who have paper ballots, he said. The city's planned use of the mechanical-lever machines also would appear to be in violation of state and federal laws mandating the retirement of these machines.

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