Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
New York's old reliable lever voting machines, which lately seemed beyond life support, gasped new life last week.
That wheeze came in an arcane federal court ruling which, on the surface, dealt with jurisdictional issues, but it left the door ajar for Nassau County's lawsuit to keep using 2,000 lever workhorses, employed without taint for a century.
"The door is open a crack," said County Attorney John Ciampoli, "but we're ready to lean on it."
In his ruling, U.S. District Court Justice Joseph Bianco sided with Nassau ordering the county voting machine lawsuit be heard in state courts, despite opposition from the state Board of Elections and the attorney general's office.
In its lawsuit, Nassau claims the new electronic voting systems violate the state constitution because they threaten to disenfranchise voters due to their unreliability and security problems. They also claim elections would no longer be controlled by public officials but private companies that own the software.
The state officials, already under a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department, urged that the case be sent to U.S. District Court Judge Gary Sharpe in the Northern District. Sharpe has tried to prod New York, the last state in the country to install new electronic systems funded under the federal Help America Vote Act, legislation that was enacted after the Florida presidential fiasco in 2000.
Twice, Sharpe has refused to hear Nassau's worries about the new voting systems, preferring to deal only with the state. The county is appealing a Sharpe ruling in federal Circuit Court of Appeals ordering the county to take delivery on new machines in time for fall elections.
State officials argued the county is trying to use state claims to avoid implementing Help America Vote legislation and ignore court orders. Bianco disagreed: "HAVA does not prescribe a particular type of voting machine nor does it have anything to say about any specific requirements" on how New York officials must carry out their duties.
But Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the state Board of Elections, said Nassau's bid will be futile: "Our position is, that ship has sailed . . . and the time for challenging lever machines has long passed." The only way to stop the demise of lever machines, he added, "would be an act of Congress and it's pretty clear that's not going to happen."
Yet William Biamonte, Democratic elections commissioner, said state court will allow them to raise the issue of machine flaws Sharpe ignored. "This takes it back to Supreme Court where the state can't hide behind the Justice Department, a consent decree or a federal judge [Sharpe] who has already made up his mind."
Ciampoli said he will seek to have county experts test the machines and hopes for a trial within a month so a ruling can be made before fall elections. The real solution, he said, is a combination of lever machines along with handicapped-accessible electronic systems already in place for the few disabled voters who come to the polls.
Biamonte also maintains that while federal aid funded purchase of electronic machines, ongoing costs for training, paper supplies, and special trucks now needed to transport the computerized systems are going to be far more costly than the sturdy lever machines. "Paper alone is $1 million a year," he said.
"The board has used lever machines for . . . years and they could serve our grandchildren well if we take care of them," said Ciampoli.
"The computer equipment coming off the truck just doesn't cut it."