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Niagara County's Voting Technology Committee was unified Wednesday on buying optical scanners to count absentee ballots, but took a cautious approach toward electronic voting machines.

Legislator William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, is an avowed supporter of buying new machines, but he promised to report all the committee's concerns about the purchase to the Legislature Tuesday, when a special session will be held to discuss more tobacco-funded purchases.

The county has more than $14 million left from its sale of its share of the national tobacco settlement. It must be spent by November 2002, according to state law.

The committee agreed that the county ought to buy two optical scanners for $60,000 to automate the counting of absentee ballots, which is now done by hand and takes as long as two weeks after every election.

But the $1.2 million purchase of 200 new electronic machines to replace the old lever machines was a different matter.

Democratic Election Commissioner Nancy L. Sharpe said, "We should be planning for the future. . . . I think the time is right to look at them. I don't want to see us jump without exploring everything."

Republican Election Commissioner Michael J. Norris said, "I'm not anti-technology, but I do have a concern about the funding."

Said Legislator Daniel L. Mocniak, D-Niagara Falls, "If we bought machines now, and then the state sprung money loose, we would look pretty foolish."

There has been talk that the state might provide localities with cash to upgrade their election technology.

Somerset Town Clerk Rebecca A. Connolly suggested that the county accept an offer from a company that makes spare parts for the existing lever machines to overhaul them for $200,000 "while we're watching and studying what's going to happen."

But Mocniak was against "putting money into the old technology. "I think that's a mistake," he said, and Sharpe agreed.

Norris said, "I think it would be better to take a wait-and-see approach. . . . There isn't a crisis here. The machines are working. They're aging."

Mocniak and Ross backed having the county own the new machines, since the law says counties are responsible for elections. At present, all the machines are owned by the cities and towns.

But Sharpe said under state law, if a county owns the machines it must also pay the election inspectors, who currently are paid by the cities and towns.

Connolly said the Town of Malone, which has had electronic machines for a decade, told her they experienced resistance from inspectors to being trained to use them, and voters have complained about the new machines for at least four years.

Malone bought Sequoia Pacific machines that list the candidates on the left and the parties on the top, instead of the other way around, to which most New York voters are accustomed. Niagara County rejected a Sequoia Pacific purchase in 1998.

The committee saw a demonstration of the machine made by Sequoia Pacific's rival, Election Systems and Software of Omaha, Neb.

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