Nassau to probe voting machine failures

A voting machine sits amongst donated clothing at

A voting machine sits amongst donated clothing at the East Meadow Fire Department. (Nov. 4, 2012) (Credit: Howard Schnapp)

More than 200 new electronic voting machines in Nassau County jammed on Election Day, forcing voters to cast some 20,000 paper ballots and delaying final tabulations in some close races, election officials said.

About 4 percent of the 463,000 Nassau voters who went to the polls Tuesday had to place paper ballots into emergency ballot boxes when the machines malfunctioned, said Democratic Board of Elections Commissioner William Biamonte. In 2010 and 2011, such breakdowns affected less than 1 percent of voters, he said.

Similar problems were reported in New York City. Suffolk Republican Deputy Elections Commissioner Bill Ellis said the county experienced only minor issues "that were easily corrected." Suffolk uses a different vendor than Nassau and the city.

"This level of failure is unacceptable," Biamonte said. "Going forward, we are going to have to take a second look at this contract."

Nassau's vendor acknowledged the problems, but said a small percentage of jams were not uncommon during high turnout elections.

"We are working now to determine the exact nature, extent and cause of these reports and will work with our customer to correct any identified issues," said Kathy Rogers, spokeswoman for Election Systems & Software of Omaha, Neb. "We are confident that every voter was able to correctly and accurately cast their ballot and that each of those ballots will be counted."

Old lever-style machines had to be replaced because of new federal requirements implemented after the extended recount in Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Nassau went to court in 2008 to keep the lever machines, but lost the suit and spent $9.6 million in federal funds to purchase 1,170 electronic machines.

Nassau GOP elections Commissioner Louis Savinetti said the electronic machine problems on Tuesday could have been due to mechanical or power issues, or to human error. "Once the ballots are certified, we will conduct an in-depth analysis with the vendor," he said.

The problems may have stemmed from paper ballots that are filled in using an ink pen, and counted by the computerized scanning machines, Biamonte said. Some machines jammed when voters filled in the incorrect number of circles in races with multiple candidates, Biamonte said.

Nassau also must count 30,000 affidavit ballots, including those submitted by residents displaced by Sandy who did not vote in their usual polling sites, and 27,423 absentee ballots. That figure could rise because the deadline to submit absentee ballots was extended to Nov. 17.

Suffolk has nearly 28,000 returned absentee ballots, although Ellis would not speculate on the number of affidavit ballots that must be counted.

Counting of the affidavits and absentees could affect several Nassau races, though Biamonte called the possibility remote. State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) leads Democrat Ryan Cronin by 4,743 votes, while Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) leads Democrat Daniel Ross by by 3,598 votes. In Suffolk, Assemb. Dean Murray (R-Patchogue) leads Democrat Edward Hennessey by 36 votes. Final certification could take three weeks, officials said.

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