County joins Long Island suit to keep ‘lever’ voting

HUDSON–Columbia County election commissioners have found an unexpected ally in their fight to retain lever voting machines.

Valatie resident John Ciampoli was the lead attorney for the Republican challenge to the county Board of Elections’ handling of absentee ballots cast in last November’s election in the town of Taghkanic. That matter was not resolved until a state appellate court ruled in favor of the Democrats in January. By then, Mr. Ciampoli had taken a new position as county attorney for Nassau County on Long Island.

But before he took office in January, Mr. Ciampoli told The Columbia Paper that one of his priorities would be to mount a challenge to the state’s new voting machines, which he believes are unreliable, prohibitively expensive and capable of being hacked.

These are the same concerns raised by the two commissioners of the Columbia County Board of Elections. “It’s interesting that he and I are on the same side this time,” said Commissioner Virginia Martin, the Democratic commissioner, who was named individually as a defendant in the legal challenge mounted by Mr. Ciampoli in the Taghkanic case last fall.

Mr. Ciampoli now leads a team of five lawyers who are preparing to file a constitutional challenge to the state’s Election Reform and Modernization Act (ERMA) adopted in 2005.

ERMA is the state’s attempt to comply with the federal Help America Vote Act, which Congress hoped would eliminate the severe problems that occurred in Florida and other place during the 2000 election for president. The federal law does not outlaw the aging, lever-operated voting machines still used around this state, but the law does require states that accepted federal money to buy new voting systems must use those funds to replace their lever machines or other older voting mechanisms.

New York is the last state in the nation to comply with the federal law, and state officials have been called into federal court by the Department of Justice to explain and remedy the delays.

The situation has been complicated by the inability of vendors to provide voting machines that meet state standards and by legal wrangling over software, among other problems.

Ms. Martin said the desire to mount a challenge to the state’s requirement has been brewing for months in Nassau County, where newly elected County Executive Ed Mangano was said to be looking for a lawyer capable of leading such an effort last fall.

Columbia County Attorney Robert Fitzsimmons traveled to Long Island January 18 to discuss the legal action with Mr. Ciampoli, who said in a phone conversation Tuesday that Mr. Fitzsimmons will draw up the legal papers necessary to join in the suit at no cost Columbia County. Nassau County “will carry the ball to a large degree,” said Mr. Ciampoli, who now heads a legal department of 110 attorneys and 50 to 60 support people, which may be the second largest municipal legal office in the state after New York City’s.

During the past year 20 New York counties have passed resolutions in favor of retaining lever voting machines, and many may follow Columbia County’s lead in joining the Nassau County lawsuit once the brief is completed and filed.

A letter signed by Nassau County’s election commissioners, William Biamonte(D) and John DeGrace(R), which was sent to every county in the state, offers clues to what the basis for the challenge. The letter calls the state’s mandate to replace lever machines with optical scan systems “unwise, unlawful, and in violation of the law against arbitrary government action,” since local election boards have not been given adequate time to implement the new voting machines they were forced to buy last fall according to a time line set up by a federal judge in Albany.

“We believe that ERMA is unconstitutional and can never be lawfully enforced,” say the Long Island commissioners, who cite concern among computer scientists that hacking could result in disenfranchisement of large numbers of voters. The experts are also concerned about a lack of access by the state to voting machine software.

The letter calls the state law unconstitutional because it would force local “to entrust their official responsibilities to commercial vendors and their technicians.” And the commissioners claim there will be “enormous underfunded costs . . . too heavy for localities to bear.”

“If we wind up not using the lever machines our costs will skyrocket,” Ms. Martin said this week. “It’s truly an unfunded mandate from the state. It makes me furious to think that county taxpayers will have to pay so much more than is necessary to see elections run,” she said.

The county Republican elections commissioner, Jason Nastke, who could not be reached in time to comment for this article, has estimated that the new voting systems will cost county taxpayers an extra $100,000 per year, and he shares Ms. Martin’s doubts about the reliability of computerized voting systems.

“We’re very gratified that the commissioners in Columbia Country are joining us in the suit,” said Mr. Ciampoli.

Comments are closed.