Who Will Win? Voting Machines Battle in Brooklyn for City Contract

One of them resembles a municipal recycling container. The other looks like a commercial paper shredder.

Both are campaigning to be New York City's new voting system, but only one can prevail. 


Meet the candidates: the all-inclusive ImageCast...

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...and the DS-200 scanner with AutoMark ballot marking device (BMD).

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These two paper ballot optical scan (PBOS) voting systems were introduced on Tuesday evening in Brooklyn, at the first of five public demonstrations being hosted by the Board of Elections in all boroughs throughout February.

Representatives from Sequoia, maker of the ImageCast, and Elections Systems & Software, which makes the DS-200 and AutoMark BMD, delivered presentations, answered questions, and offered hands-on demonstrations for about 40 people at Brooklyn College.


The systems arrive in response to last year's federal court ruling that ordered the laggardly New York state to comply with the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The ruling requires the state to ensure accessibility for disabled voters, and to upgrade the antiquated pull-lever systems.

PBOS systems would appear to satisfy both demands. The systems from Sequoia and ES&S seemed remarkably similar in operation, their three primary elements being the scanner, a BMD, and a ballot box. The basic concept is that a voter marks a ballot by hand, or uses the BMD for assistance in the case of disability, then scans it, after which the ballot is deposited into the ballot box for the record. During the process, there are audio and visual cues to notify voters whether they have marked the ballot improperly.

While certainly not without flaws, PBOS systems have won the approval of groups like New Yorkers for Verified Voting. As paper-based systems that use an optical scanner to read marked paper ballots and tabulate the results, they are considered more secure and verifiable than direct recording electronic voting machines, or DREs. The latter often use touch-screen technology, and record votes directly onto computer memory devices.

Elections commissioners in each part of the state may choose either the ImageCast or the DS-200 with AutoMark BMD, the contenders that emerged victorious from the long bidding process with the Office of General Services. New York City election commissioners will make their decision after receiving input from voters at a public hearing on March 4.

Compared to the massive pull-lever machines, PBOS systems weigh less, with the ImageCast reportedly around 250 pounds. Unlike the pull-lever machines, they can serve multiple election districts at a polling site, allowing the city to purchase about 5,000 PBOS systems with HAVA funds and apportion them among the 1,350 polling sites. 


Milagros Franco, a staff member of the Brooklyn Center for Independence of the Disabled, tested Sequoia's ImageCast on Tuesday night, and said that she had used the AutoMark BMD from ES&S in the last election. While she appreciated the efficiency of the ImageCast, she added that the hardware was not her biggest concern on Election Day.

"The problem that I had was not the machine," she said about her experience on November 4. "It was the lack of training on the workers' part. [The Board of Elections] uses people who are not computer savvy. They don't know how to turn the damned thing on."

Other attendees asked questions that revealed deep worries about the reliability, security, accessibility, cost and capacity of the PBOS systems. Company representatives sought to assuage fears about every contingency, from power outages to excessive ballot volume, although neither agreed to submit their product to the ultimate "hacker test" when challenged by e-voting skeptic, Teresa Hommel. 


Then again, all the anxiety may be premature, as the Board is already behind schedule in its plan to select a PBOS system. Commissioners were supposed to make a decision in December, but Systest, the independent certification lab, lost its accreditation from the federal government in October. Until Systest regains its certification, no system can be approved for use in New York.

"I can't assure you definitely and honestly that these are going to be at the polling sites in September," said Marcus Cederqvist, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections, who acknowledged the timeline of the federal court ruling. "There are incongruencies there." Photos by Julie Bolcer.

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