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An election? Cue voting complaints

Doug Wheller
via Flickr
Solve this: voting on a paper ballot should be as easy as an all-white Rubik's cube. But as Tuesday's primaries showed, it's not.

“It’s back to the future.”

No, not the movie. That’s how Dennis Ward sums up New York’s decision to move to paper ballots. He’s Commissioner of the Erie County’s Board of Elections.

Voters now use pens to check boxes next to their candidates. Then they feed their ballots into an optical scanner.

Ward likens the technology to feeding a dollar into a soft drink machine. Not exactly groundbreaking gadgetry.

A national trend toward adopting digital touch screen voting machines has faded, Ward says. The lack of a paper trail, and evidence that vote totals can be manipulated with a quick rewrite of the software, made states think simpler could be better.

New York’s transition wasn’t cheap. To replace thousands of 700-pound mechanical voting machines, the federal government sent more than $200 million to New York. That money comes from 2002’s Help America Vote Act, which was passed the wake of the 2000 election debacle in Florida. Ah memories - dangling chad, anyone?

But, just as the sun rises in the morning, voters had trouble with the new voting system.

Voters may have had trouble because they didn’t have the benefit of a “practice round.” Members of the media were invited to vote a fake ballot at the Erie County Board of Elections last week.  The ballot pitted Mickey Mouse against Donald Duck for town clerk.  I know as a journalist it’s a cardinal sin to reveal your political preferences, but I think Mr. Duck is just the kind of clerk this town needs.  I also picked Yosemite Sam for councilman.

Filling in the bubble with a ballpoint pen and then feeding the ballot into a machine (that Ward says reminds him of R2-D2) was pretty easy.  I remarked to Ward that it seemed pretty hard to screw up. 

“Well, you’d think,” he said. “But many have tried!”

Cardboard Boxes

When marking a paper ballot, voters need privacy. Voting stations can cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars apiece. At four or five (at least) per polling place, that adds up quick.

So Erie County is using cardboard cutouts (see photo above!). They cost 34 cents.  They’re not as accommodating as the old lever machine books, with their plush privacy curtains, but Ward says they’re not supposed to be.

“This is not trying to make somebody feel like they’ve been at a Hyatt for an afternoon,” Ward said. “They go in, they sit down, they mark their ballot. They’re not there for a picnic.”