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New York State Board of Elections votes to certify controversial touch-screen voting machines

James Brown
WXXI News file photo

After a lengthy discussion, the New York State Board of Elections on Wednesday certified a new controversial touch-screen voting machine for use in future elections.

Opponents, including some leading government reform groups, said the decision is “bad for voters.” They said the machines don’t leave a verified paper trail and are potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The machine, known as the ExpressVote XL, is made by the company Election System and Software. It uses touch screens for voters to choose the candidates they want for elected offices and then cast their votes. The machine then prints a ballot on thermal paper, which the voter can view through a glass screen but is not allowed to handle. The ballot is then converted into a barcode, which is fed into a machine that records the results.

Currently, all voting machines in New York operate with paper ballots that the voter fills out by hand and feeds into a tallying machine.

The board, which is made up of two Democrats and two Republicans, discussed the proposal for hours in a debate that at times grew heated.

Democratic Commissioner Douglas Kellner raised several objections, including whether the thermal paper meets the board’s environmental standards, and whether the lack of an actual paper ballot violates state law, which requires that there be a paper trail that can be used if a recount is needed.

“We should be steering … county elections officials towards hand-marked papers. This system is significantly more expensive and has these other issues and lacks the confidence of a substantial number of voters in the community,” Kellner said.

Republican Commissioner Peter Kosinski disagreed with Kellner’s concerns, saying it’s up to the individual counties, who would choose to buy the machines to determine whether they’re right for them.

“That's not our job,” Kosinski said. “If the county voters and their county board say, ‘We don't like this type of machine because we can't do X, Y and Z with it, then the county can say, ‘We’re not going to buy it.’”

Board of elections staff said they tested the touch-screen machines and did not find any significant security concerns. In the meeting, staff members said they would vote to approve the machines if they could.

Kellner voted no to the certification, but the other Democrat on the board, Andrew Spano, voted with the two other Republicans, so the measure was approved.

The government reform group Common Cause is one of several groups that wrote a letter to the Board of Elections asking that the machines not be approved. The group’s Sarah Goff, speaking before the vote, said New York already uses the best available voting machines -- and that should not change.

“Our concerns are really that why would we move away from the gold standard that we currently have, in which a voter marks their own ballot, and it's scanned in, to move to a system that is more insecure,” Goff said. “It's incredibly expensive. And the idea of transitioning voting machines, right before a very consequential election cycle, and 2024 just seems like a bad idea.”

Goff said the questions about the machines will “fan the flames” of misinformation regarding the safety and security of the U.S. and New York state elections.

In a statement after the vote, Common Cause called the certification of the machines “an exceedingly poor decision.”

The touch-screen machines could be in place as early as Election Day next year.

Two other machines that employ some touchscreen functions were also approved, the Clear Ballot ClearVote 2.4 and the Dominion DS 5.16. Election officials said those machines also went through thorough testing and are safe.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.