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Nassau gets $2 million to switch from lever to optical voting machines

Nassau County is to get $2 million from the state to help it transition from lever to optical scanning voting machines for special district elections beginning next year, according to state lawmakers.

Officials said the county is the only one in the state to get the funding because of the financial hardship that securing the machines would cause its special districts.

"With the multitude of special districts in Nassau, the financial impact of getting additional machines would have been devastating," said Assemb. Michelle Schimel (D-Great Neck), who led the drive to secure the $2 million.

The state Board of Elections examined the fiscal impact of acquiring more machines, "and most of the impact was on Nassau County," Schimel said.

The Nassau Board of Elections has submitted a plan to the state for lawmakers to release the funding, which is an Assembly initiative. Details of the plan have not been released, and it is not clear how soon the funds will be available.

The State Legislature and the governor had backed extensions for the past six years of lever machine usage in the thousands of special district elections such as villages, schools, libraries, fire, water and garbage throughout the state, but they indicated the extensions would end this year.

Lobbying paid off

Schimel and state Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola) said lobbying by county groups, especially school and village government officials, was key to securing Nassau's funding.

"It would have cost Freeport an additional $200,000 just to get started," said Mayor Robert Kennedy, second vice president of the Nassau County Village Officials Association, which represents Nassau's 64 villages and had lobbied for the financial help.

The only alternative to the new machines is to revert to the old paper ballots, which Schimel and Martins oppose. They said paper ballots are cumbersome and outdated.

"Paper voting was 200 years ago; it's not the way it should be done now," Martins said.

Nassau's Board of Elections has 1,300 optical scanning machines for federal, state, county, town and city elections. David Gugerty, Nassau's Democratic Board of Elections commissioner, said another 150 to 200 machines are needed for the special districts, which hold elections about six times a year.

"If and when the Nassau Board of Elections receives budgeted state funding for . . . new voting machines, the board will continue to work in a bipartisan manner to assist the . . . special districts," Gugerty said.

He sent his plan to Schimel earlier this month, who will pass it to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee. The committee will give the information to the administering state agency, Empire State Development.

But some village officials are concerned the new machines still might generate unnecessary cost since state election officials had mandated that ballots be printed for 110 percent of registered voters.

Under those guidelines, Valley Stream would have to print a ballot for each of its 24,000 registered voters, when only about 2,000 usually vote, said Mayor Ed Fare.

Scanner ballots more costly

Ballots printed for the scanner are much more costly because the scanners require a specific, more expensive paper. Scan machine pages cost 23 to 57 cents or more each, depending on factors such as number bought and ballot size, a state report said. Regular paper ballots can cost 2 to 4 cents each.

But the state Board of Elections said in the late 2014 report that local election administrators should "develop their own print thresholds for each type of election they conduct."

The report added: "The New York Conference of Mayors in their comments stated that villages which have switched from levers to scanners found, on average, an increase of 23% in the cost of conducting their elections."

In a recent mailing from the Nassau Board of Elections to special districts, it suggested that the scanner and tabulator would cost $300 a machine, with an additional $150 for each ballot marking device for handicapped voters, $50 for PDF ballot files, and $25 for mandatory inspector training.

The big fiscal difference is that the soon-to-be-banned lever machine rents for $150 each.

Suffolk County has been using optical scanning voting machines since 2010 and rents them to special districts upon request for $200 per machine per election.

Now, "the board is experiencing additional costs related to the new machines, such as new warranty and maintenance costs. The wear and tear and associated maintenance and warranty costs are accelerated by additional usage . . . and is generally accounted for in the rental fee," said Suffolk Board of Elections Republican Commissioner Nick LaLota.

The state prohibits public boards of elections from making a profit.

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