ELIZABETHTOWN - Essex County leaders are expressing frustration in reaction to state and federal mandates that they say will increase the cost to hold local elections.
David Mace, Democratic commissioner at the Essex County Board of Elections, spoke at the Jan. 11 Public Safety Committee meeting, outlining some of the changes planned for elections in 2010.
Mace said his department received word Dec. 16 of a mandate from the State Board of Elections to administer future elections through the use of electronic optical scanners. Mechanical lever voting machines, which have been in place for decades in Essex County, will be phased out entirely.
"No later than September of this year... the lever machines are gone," said Mace, noting that the change is mandated by a federal court order.
The news came much to the dismay of many county leaders who say the new equipment and training required is a waste of money to fix a system they say isn't broken.
The lever machines can still be used in village or school district elections, Mace explained, but will no longer be legal for use in any other elections.
Instead, all voters will now have to fill out a special paper ballot that is electronically counted by the optical scanners. Disabled voters can use special ballot marking devices, or BMDs, that create a paper ballot using computerized interfaces.
Some optical scanners have already been put into use in Essex County, being utilized alongside lever machines at most voting sites in the 2009 elections.
According to Mace, 20 counties across New York State participated in a pilot program last year to test their exclusive use, and many reported very few problems with the machines.
One common complaint among voters, he said, was a perceived lack of privacy, because, in most cases, they were not behind a curtain when filling out their ballot.
"The Board of Elections is going to have to be proactive in the way election sites are set up," said Mace, noting that privacy booths will be set up for voters to mark their ballots behind a curtain, and scanners will be located such that the marked ballots will not have to be carried far.
Mace said the Board of Elections has about $115,000 left from a grant for new machines and related materials. The department plans to spend roughly $35,000 of their grant money on privacy booths and at least another $35,000 on more scanners and BMDs.
The other issue created by the switch, said Mace, is that the county will have to hire and train two voting machine technicians to ensure the scanners are maintained and set up correctly. The committee agreed to set a salary for the position at $17 per hour.
Law requires the technicians, one from each party, to work in tandem to prevent any opportunities for tampering. Mace said they will need to work nearly full-time August through December with occasional work in the winter and spring.
Jay Supervisor Randy Douglas decried the mandate, noting how the county has already had to spend thousands of dollars to conform to new federal voting regulations. He expressed concern that hiring technicians for 26 weeks would require them to be provided with health insurance and other benefits, putting further strain on the county's budget.
"It's just a total waste of money," said Keene Supervisor Bill Ferebee; "the security, the machines - everything."
Since each scanner will be equipped to count up to 2,000 ballots, most sites will only require one to operate. Ferebee expressed concern about the machines breaking down, as one in North Elba did in the last election.
"Our constituents will have no place to vote if those machines break down," Ferebee said.
Because the optical scanners use a paper ballot, Mace said, the ballots can always be stored in a locked box and hand-counted later in the case of machine failure. It's that verification process that provides an advantage over lever machines, he said.
Even though the county-owned lever machines will become illegal for use in most elections, county officials may have to wait to sell them.
"The State Board of Elections has made it very clear to me that nothing is to be done with those machines this year," said Mace.