The presidential election debacle in Florida and the availability of money from Niagara County's tobacco settlement bonds have inspired new consideration of buying electronic voting machines.
The first meeting of a new Voting Technology Committee is set for 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Courthouse.
The six-member bipartisan panel will reopen a door that the Legislature slammed shut in 1998, when it rejected the purchase of 200 electronic machines for $1.2 million on a straight party-line vote: Republicans opposed, Democrats in favor.
Only one member of the current Legislature wasn't there in 1998: William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield. He will serve as chairman of the new committee, appointed last week by Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster.
The other members are Legislators Daniel L. Mocniak, D-Niagara Falls, and Gerald R. DeFlippo, R-Lockport; Election Commissioners Michael J. Norris, R-Lockport, and Nancy L. Sharpe, D-Lockport; and Somerset Town Clerk Rebecca Connolly, a Republican.
Three years ago, the primary reason given publicly for rejection of the purchase was financial. The machines were to be bought through a 10-year bond issue.
Though legislators were reluctant to talk about it on the record, another reason for opposition to the electronic machines was that they make write-in voting far easier than it is now.
The electronic machines have a keyboard that allows voters to type in a name. On the current lever machines, a voter has to hold open a metal slide, which is positioned above the heads of most voters, with one hand while scribbling a name with the other.
"All anybody would have to do is look at our current machines and see how difficult it is to write in," said Sharpe. "We have to think of the voter."
The county has cash for capital purchases. It had $19 million available for projects after selling its share of the national tobacco lawsuit settlement for a lump sum. More than $14 million is still unallocated.
Ross said Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Co. of Jamestown, whose products the county was considering three years ago, has informed him its price from 1998 still stands.
Norris said the county uses 184 lever machines on Election Day, and each city and town has one backup machine. The machines are actually owned and maintained by the municipalities.
Lever machines have not been manufactured since 1982, though some spare parts are still made. In 1998, the Board of Elections reported that the average machine in Niagara County was 33 years old. Some, especially in Niagara Falls, are more than 50 years old.
After some breakdowns in 1997, former Republican Election Commissioner Lucille L. Britt spearheaded a push for better storage and maintenance of the machines, and since then very little trouble has been reported.
"I still think our machines are going to hold up for a while. They work well," Norris said.
But Sharpe said, "I think the machines we have are nearing the end of their active usefulness."
Norris said there's talk that there might be state or federal funding for new election equipment. "I don't want to go out there and spend $1 million of our money and then have the state come up with money," he said.
" 'Might' is the operative word there," Sharpe responded. "This is a window of opportunity we have."
Sharpe said another problem with the lever machines is that they are difficult, if not impossible, for disabled voters to use.
"Most of them vote absentee. What choice do they have?" she said.
The Sequoia Pacific electronic machines are lower and wider than the lever machines. The table of candidates is set on a slant at about hip height for the average adult.
Votes are cast by pressing one's finger on the Mylar square assigned to a given candidate, which causes a light in the square to illuminate.
There are also other companies in the business with their own versions of electronic voting.