LIVINGSTON — Across the county new voting machines that were used for the first time during the primary will be used by seven times as many voters in today’s general election. The situation has prompted Columbia County’s two election commissioners, Virginia Martin (D) and Jason Nastke (R) to mount an intensive educational effort to insure that voters will be able to use them properly come Election Day.
The machines were purchased in 2008 for every polling location in Columbia County in order to bring the county into compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act, which requires both a ballot marking device for disabled voters and a system that produces a paper record of each vote.
The Sequoia Image Cast, a bulky contraption that combines a ballot marking device, an optical scanner, privacy shields and ballot lock boxes located below the scanner, is far more streamlined and costs less than other machines that were considered before the fall of 2008, when county election commissioners chose a system. In this system, the paper ballot serves as the paper record of each vote.
During the past month Ms. Martin and Mr. Nastke have taken a Sequoia ImageCast to the Columbia County Fair in Chatham, to last week’s Golden Gathering at Columbia Greene Community College, to the American Legion in Valatie and to locations in Caanan, Hudson and Philmont so that voters could test drive the new machine.
Last Friday senior citizens attending a Meals on Wheels lunch sponsored by the Columbia County Office for the Aging at the Linlithgo Dutch Reformed Church in Livingston got an orientation while waiting for their roast beef dinners to be delivered. They marked ballots using special pens containing scanner sensitive ink, declaring their favorite ice cream flavors, film stars, films, seasons, and music. Vanilla and chocolate tied.
The ballot displays races for office on one side and propositions on the other with small circles to fill in to register a choice. Once the voters fill out their ballots they line up to insert them into the scanner. The process resembles that of feeding paper into a fax machine, except the voting machine can read both sides of the paper at once so voters can feed the paper in any which way. If a voter makes too many choices, called over-voting, or too few, under-voting, the ballot is returned, and if a mistake is discovered a voter can fill out a new ballot and repeat the process until he or she has used up three ballots, the limit. A voter may opt to not vote in every race and can resubmit the same ballot if he or she chooses.
Face down with the proposition side up might be the more private way to feed the machine, since a vote is supposed to remain private and this system is far less private than the lever machines and provides more chances for someone to glimpse your vote. Private areas at polling locations are available for ballot marking, and privacy sleeves that look like a large file folder can be held around the ballot as it slides into the optical scanner.
On election night after polls close, the ballots will travel in special ballot bags that are collected from polling sites by a ballot catcher team and taken to a secure cell at the county jail.
The ballots get counted twice, once by the optical scanners on election night, and a second time the following week by two person teams with representatives from the two main parties during the week following the election. The hand count, which goes far beyond the requirements of state and federal election law, should give voters and election officials alike reason for confidence in the new system. Columbia County’s board of elections is one of the few in New York to travel the extra mile to thoroughly test the new systems.