Cartridges Challenge Chads

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For the last few months, Governor Pataki’s Task Force for Election Modernization has been caravanning through the state like a side-show circus. In January, the members hosted demonstrations for new voting machines at the Syracuse State Fair. From there, they traveled to Rochester, Albany and Harlem, and last month, the team propped its tents under the crystal chandeliers of Grand Central Station.

“The goal is to find the best new technologies to meet the need of all New Yorkers,” Pataki said to a roomful of election reform advocates and voting machine salesmen who’ve been trailing him in the hopes of winning one of the most lucrative election reform contracts in the country.

The city is looking to replace all of its 7,000 voting machines, those 40-year-old devices patented by Thomas Edison. Florida may have won the award for electoral bloopers two years ago, but, according to a Caltech/MIT analysis of the 2000 elections, New York had some of the highest numbers of “lost” votes.

So now the trick is picking the machine that best suits the size and shape of the five boroughs. It must be able to translate ballots into several languages, have the capability to add others, and it must be handicap accessible. In short, says Neil Rosenstein, co-chair of the Citywide Coalition for Voter Participation, it must make voting errors nearly impossible, particularly given the city’s history of voting fraud and disenfranchisement of poor and minority citizens. The ideal machine, he says, would tell a voter if he forgot to vote for one particular office, or voted for two candidates in one contest, or pressed a button that would nullify his vote entirely.

At press time, the federal Election Reform Bill, which would provide $3.4 billion for states to overhaul their voting systems, was still up for debate. The governor’s task force planned to release its recommendations for electoral reform, including its favorite machinery, on April 14.

Some of the technology angling for New York’s favor includes hand-held systems for voting in the car, on the train or from the hull of a US battle ship. Advocates for the visually impaired note the screen’s small print. The price, however, is not so small: at least $5,000.

Automated teller machines have also provided inspiration, featuring touch screens that allow voters to scroll down a menu for their candidates of choice. Votes are stored on cartridges, which poll workers collect and tally at the end of the day. Some politicians worry that voters will miss the candidates listed toward the bottom of the screen. But at least one model, made by Sequoia, has won kudos from Lighthouse International for its audio ballot option. Election reformists also praise it for offering voters a last look at all their ballot selections before they are finalized.

Of course cost is also an issue, and for that reason “The Patriot,” made by UniLect, has caught the eye of at least one member of the governor’s task force. The electric octopus, as some fondly call it, can have up to 16 touch screens connected to one motherboard, allowing the city to save money on hardware. It runs for about $3,000.

For any of these machines to make it to the polling sites, however, at least a few state laws must be changed. Currently, all ATM, laptop and hand-held ballots are out of the question since state law requires that all machines display every election on one page.

Still, the biggest challenge ahead, says Peter Johnson, chair of the governor’s task force, is conquering voters’ cynicism. Recent events do not bode well. Using Sequoia’s touch screen system for the first time in March, Palm Beach County delayed tallying local election results for hours because some poll workers forgot to collect the machines’ cartridges, and at least one took a few home with him. (He was fired.) “Instead of chads,” says one local critic, “we now have cartridges.”