ExpressVote XL voting machines at a demonstration in Philadelphia in June...

ExpressVote XL voting machines at a demonstration in Philadelphia in June 2019. Credit: AP/Matt Rourke

Four months ago, the New York State Board of Elections voted after intensive debate to approve the use of a touch-screen voting machine for counties around the state to purchase if they so choose.

Unsurprisingly, there is a product available to buy. Manufacturer Election Systems & Software — represented by connected lobbyists such as former Democratic Party state co-chairman Keith Wright — sells its devices as an improvement over the current system to which voters in the region have grown accustomed in recent years. The new machine, called the ExpressVote XL, could be in use as early as next year.

But before any of the counties can opt in to buying the machines, Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for government accountability, and other plaintiffs are suing to void the board’s approval. Changing devices in time for the 2024 national races would be a particularly bad idea even if they don’t violate state rules regarding voters’ ability to verify their choices before having them counted, as Common Cause claims.

Use of the current voting machines followed the chaos-riddled Florida vote in the Bush-Gore presidential race in 2000, which involved such wrenches in the works as “hanging chads” and “butterfly ballots.” Around the nation, election systems were re-evaluated, revised and reformed. In New York, it was wisely decided in tandem with technological experts that the best and most secure system is using paper ballots. The voter marks the ballot and personally places it in the counter. It cannot be altered by hacking. Ballots must be counted when an election is too close to otherwise call, as are those sent by mail as “absentee” ballots before Election Day. It took a long time to iron out the process while the old lever-voting machines were trashed. If nothing else, converting to a new one in a presidential year begs for glitches.

And while state officials assure skeptics that the ExpressVote XL allows voters to review and verify what they filled in, some experts insist it is more vulnerable to trickery than marking paper ballots. In recording and counting votes, these touch screens issue a “user card” with a bar code. Plaintiffs in the case warn that, since voters can’t read bar codes, their use will “provide fodder for those who peddle in election voter-fraud fear mongering and conspiracy theories about ‘rigged elections.’”

And that, they say, threatens to “reduce public confidence that votes are accurately cast and counted.”

Perhaps coincidentally — but very unfortunately — Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie reportedly is moving to replace Douglas Kellner, the board’s most technically seasoned member and co-chair. Kellner, a touch screen skeptic, has made ballot security a mission in his 18 years on the panel.

Fixing an unbroken system wastes time. And rattling voter confidence at a moment like this makes things worse. The board should reverse course and make sure there is no new ballot technology in place for 2024.

CLARIFICATION: Former Democratic Party state co-chairman Keith Wright is no longer a registered lobbyist and no longer represents voting machine manufacturer Election Systems & Software. 

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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