New voting machines may mean crushing' costs to taxpayers

QUEENSBURY New computerized election machines endorsed last week by the state elections board could potentially mean crushing ongoing costs to Warren County taxpayers for customized ballots plus heavy expenses for programming, county elections commissioners said Monday. Under a court-ordered deadline to accommodate voters with physical challenges, the state Board of Elections endorsed three new voting machines with optical-scan tabulating devices incorporating components for those with disabilities. If those optical-scan voting tabulators are the only option for replacing all their existing machines at sites across the county, area taxpayers could face an expensive surprise, Warren County Republican Elections Commissioner Mary Beth Casey said. This may end up being a financial nightmare for our county, she said, speaking about the cost of many thousands of custom-printed, bar-coded special ballots used with optical-scan voting machines, plus new costs for software, training, storage, and additional personnel. A looming deadline to pick new machines for future elections and their potential burdensome costs prompted Casey and county Democratic Elections Commissioner William Montfort to call a special meeting of county supervisors Wednesday to figure out what to do. The state board must assure that all of New Yorks counties have at least one new voting machine that accommodates physically challenged voters to be situated by Fall 2008 at each poll site, which in Warren Countys case, is 22. The three voting machines approved for use by the state Board accommodate disabled voters with an accessory console including sip or blow controls and audio instructions for the blind. The Help America Vote Act also requires that new computerized voting machines be in place for all voters, at all poll sites, by September 2009. That number of machines, for Warren County, may be an additional 48 to 75. Optical-scan machines require ballots to be marked by voters by filling out tiny ovals like on a scholastic multiple-choice test then inserted into machines for tabulation. These ballots are likely to cost between 42 and 60 cents apiece, and existing state election rules require that counties provide each polling site with substantially more ballots than the number of voters registered. If optical scan machines are the only ones the board eventually certifies, the states counties would be in for quite a financial burden. There are about 43,500 registered voters in Warren County, according to Montfort. And voters will be allowed up to three ballots each to accommodate for mistakes because ballots cant be altered. Including the extra ballots that the county must provide to allow for voter mistakes, the county could be ordering and warehousing tens of thousands of optical-scan ballots that are never used and eventually scrapped, he said. Unused ballots arent the only expense that worries Casey and Montfort. Although the cost of the computerized machines is to be 95 percent refunded by the federal government, the soft costs of the ballots, programming, training, and maintenance required by the computerized devices are most likely to be shouldered solely by the counties, Montfort said. He and Casey predicted that two more employees in their department would likely be needed. Whatever the methodology of the tabulators, computerized machines will need routine reprogramming, recharging, testing, and secure storage, which is likely to mean the county has to provide a building of 3,500 to 5,000 square feet for election equipment and ballots, Montfort said. The basic price of the endorsed machines software is $75,000, training is $2,900 for a two-day class, and consultation with a manufacturers representative can cost $3,300 per day, according to figures released at a conference held last week by the state board . The boards media representative Robert Brehm said that the state commissioners were under considerable time pressure because of the recent federal order to accommodate voters with disabilities. Non compliance is not an option, and we have to move forward, he said, adding that both county and state elections commissioners were aware of the potential additional costs linked to optical-scan machines. A recount which could theoretically be mandated if a tally of unused, scrapped and cast ballots didnt add up exactly to the total on county records -- would be another burden, the county commissioners said. A manual recount on a timely basis would require hiring dozens of people, Casey estimated. How scary is this? she said. Cost isnt the only frustrating aspect of the optical-scan tabulators. The ballots they accept have instructions in type that is smaller than fine print on a credit-card contract, and candidates names arent much bigger, Montfort said. And those who cant read the ballot will need to use one of the consoles for the physically challenged. Reading an entire ballot with that device may take 40 minutes or so, Casey estimated. She said she was frustrated about the implications raised by these new machines. I cant tell you how distressed we are about this, she said.

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