Moving from lever to scan

THINK OF THE LOOK you’ll get a decade or two from now explaining to young people how you voted in 2010. They’ll look at you with mouths wide open: “You mean you voted on a piece of paper and stuck it in an optical scanner?”

A little advice: Don’t admit that until this year you voted in a metal closet with cloth curtains, where you pushed down little gray levers that turned wheels with numbers that determined the winners. They’ll never believe you.

People who went to the polls in Tuesday’s general election used the new optical scanners, a big step toward computerized voting. But unlike fancier touch-screen systems, the optical system leaves election officials with a paper trail to work with in close or legally contested races. It also reduces the opportunities for individuals or groups to secretly rig an election by manipulating the software.

New York was the last state to adopt a new voting system after Congress required changes following the ballot disaster in the 2000 presidential election, but officials here knew touch-screen systems can cause major disruptions, deprive voters of their right to cast a ballot and undermine public confidence in the democratic process. Those systems also cost too much.

In the last few years, Columbia County election commissioners, Democrats and Republicans, have actively sought to persuade state officials to choose the optical system once it became clear that the old lever machines had to go, in part because lever voting creates barriers for people with disabilities and because information — votes are information — has greater value in digital form. The new systems make it possible for nearly every voter who can get to the polls to cast his or her vote just like other citizens. That’s progress.

But our election commissioners, Virginia Martin (D) and Jason Nastke (R), have a deeply skeptical streak. In September when all voters in the primaries had to use the new system for the first time, Ms. Martin said she would not certify the outcome until she and Mr. Nastke counted all the ballots… by hand. That requirement is still in place for the county for this election, although it is not mandated by the state. It is delays the results, especially in close races, but the stakes are too high to assume that the nerds who designed the scanning software got everything right.

That excuse, however, will wear thin in the future. The need for a total recount by hand should diminish with time, replaced by random spot checks to determine whether the systems are functioning accurately. The public has the right to expect that in future elections the results from the voting machines will be made available as soon as the polls close. Those numbers are public information and after this first year there is no excuse for withholding them.

In Chatham Tuesday morning everything appeared to function smoothly. The little cardboard carrel where voters marked ballots offered more privacy that I’d anticipated. And I felt quite well informed about the process, having seen the machines in action at the recent Pizza King contest in Valatie, one of many places, including the county fair, where the election commissioners demonstrated new system. Okay, I did try to stuff my ballot in the scanner upside down until the poll worker showed me, very politely, how to do it right. I didn’t even have time to kick the machine before my vote was counted.

I miss the satisfying “Ka-chung!” of all those thousands of gears and levers grinding every time you pulled the handle on the old mechanical voting machines to register your vote and exit the booth. But I found the new system easy to use and efficient. And while problems crop up with any new technology, our elections commissioners in Columbia County handled the roll-out of this one remarkably well.

Not so long from now, people will vote by mobile device or DNA or telepathy. But the principle will remain the same. As a people we have the right to determine who governs us, and the vote is the way we do that. There is more to do to ensure access to the results at a pace people have come to expect in the 21st century. But county Board of Elections has just helped us preserve our basic right, and in that essential role it deserves recognition for a job well done.

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