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When you step into the voting booth today and pull the lever that closes the curtains, take one long last look at what you see in front of you.

It may be the last time you ever vote this way in a presidential election.

By the next federal election in 2006, the approximately 1,100 mechanical voting machines that have served Erie County since the 1970s will very likely be gone.

The old voting machines are about to be forced out of action by a federal law that was a response to the vote-tallying fiasco in Florida in the 2000 presidential race.

What will replace them?

Two years before the state is required to make a number of changes to the voting process under the federal Help America Vote Act, New York still doesn't know.

It could be an ATM-style machine, with a touch screen. Or it might be a ballot that would be read by an optical scanner. Or possibly a combination of the two.

Whatever it is, the fact that there has been little movement toward deciding what the new machines will be is making some of those in charge of running and monitoring elections a little uneasy.

"We're still flailing around," said Laurence E. Adamczyk, Erie County's Democratic Election Commissioner. "We're running out of time here to comply with the law."

New York, like the rest of the country, was supposed to have made changes in time for this fall's election. But the state received a two-year waiver from the deadline, as did 23 other states.

Although the waiver has bought the state more time, New York hasn't done much with that extra time, according to Neal Rosenstein of the New York State Public Interest Research Group, who has monitored the state's compliance with the new federal law.

"New York is at the bottom of the barrel, far behind the rest of the pack when it comes to implementing the provisions of the law," he said.

The mechanical-lever voting machines in wide use throughout New York, including Erie County, trace their roots back to Thomas Edison. He was 21 in 1868 when he received the first of his 1,093 patents, for an electrical vote recorder.

Western New York has a long history with voting machines. The first mechanical-lever voting machine made its national debut in Lockport in 1892, and for many years, American Voting Machine of Jamestown was a dominant supplier of the machines.

Most of the machines currently in use in Erie County came from American Voting Machine and date back to the 1970s. New models are no longer made, and replacement parts are hard to come by.

Erie County election officials say the machines, which weigh more than 600 pounds, are cumbersome but extremely reliable.

The county's Republican election commissioner, Ralph M. Mohr, said the machines have survived falls down flights of stairs without breaking.

"In the 12 years I've been on this job, only two counters out of the 270 on the back of the machine have failed," he said, adding that the counters were on different machines. "They are rock solid and, if they're tampered with, the evidence is staring you in the face."

Added Adamczyk, "They work well, and people are used to them. Switching to a new type of voting machine is going to be somewhat significant."

Almost certainly, whatever replaces the big metallic boxes will be smaller and reliant on computer technology.

A number of manufacturers are vying for what promises to be a lucrative business: the federal government has already committed to spending $3.6 billion on new voting systems.

Rosenstein said there are two main types of new machines, the direct recording electronic device and the optical scanner.

Using the former "would be similar to using a bank ATM," he said. The optical scan involves filling out a ballot, then having it read by a scanner.

There's also an interesting hybrid of the two systems, Rosenstein said, that allows voters to vote on a touch screen, then print out a ballot that would then be read by a scanner.

In some ways, New York will benefit from being tardy because some of the new systems are having a trial by fire in today's presidential election.

"California bought a lot of machines, and they've had problems," said Laura McDade, president of the League of Women Voters Buffalo/Niagara. "The question about the reliability of the machines looms very large."

New machines will have to address one of the negatives with the current machines. While the old machines can be adjusted to different heights for people in wheelchairs, there is no accommodation for the blind or physically disabled voter.

"I haven't been able to vote by myself," said Doug Usiak, executive director of the Western New York Independent Living Project, who has been blind for the past 30 years. "I've had to rely on my daughters to pull the lever."

New machines with synthesized speech and speech-activated software would change that, while touch screen or ATM-style machines would make it easier for those with other physical limitations, he said.

Purchase options will be somewhat limited if the state keeps two quirks in its current way of voting.

New York is one of the few states to allow candidates on multiple party lines, and to require a "full face" ballot, in which all of the races and propositions are shown.

"The ballot is so confusing right now," Rosenstein said. "It grossly inflates the cost of the voting machines we have to get."

About $230 million in federal funds is expected to be available for New York to purchase the new systems and make the other changes required under the statute, according to Bob Brehm, Schenectady County's election commissioner and chairman of the executive board of the state association of election commissioners.

"There is (federal) money available for the first time in American history to help pay for local elections," he said.

This election, most voters should see no change in the way they vote as a result of the law.

The only substantial change will involve new voters who have registered by mail. As a result of the law, those people will be required to show a form of identification.

Up until last week, there was some confusion over what would be considered valid identification, but the state issued guidelines saying that a current, valid photo ID with the voter's name and address would be considered acceptable.

The state said such an identification would be a passport, a driver's license, a student identification card or a pistol or firearm permit. It also said that a current utility bill, bank statement, paycheck, government check or other government document with the name and address of the voter would be accepted.

The federal law also mandates that voters be given a chance to file a provisional ballot if, for whatever reason, their registrations are questioned when they go to vote. New Yorkers, however, have had the right to file such a ballot for years.


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