Old voting machines remain —

Debate, tests delay new devices until  at least 2007

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — With New York still lagging far behind the rest of the country in meeting the standards set up by the Help America Vote Act, Cortland County is doing what it can to make sure polling places are accessible to all residents Tuesday.
Although Cortland and the rest of the state will continue to use the old-style pull-lever voting machines instead of electronic machines being used in other states in response to HAVA, residents with disabilities that might prohibit them from using the old machines will be able to vote at the County Office Building.
“We’ll have one spot for the entire county that will be completely handicap accessible,” said Republican Election Commissioner Bob Howe.
“It’s strictly a marking device that will print a ballot for the voter, and then that ballot will go straight into an envelope and will be counted.”
Howe noted that the Cortland County Board of Elections has opted to move three polling places to improve accessibility: Marathon, from Town Hall to the Civic Center; Blodgett Mills, from the Blodgett Mills church to the Cortlandville highway garage on Route 41 in Polkville; and Cuyler, from the town highway garage to the Cuyler fire station.
These changes are meant as a temporary fix. The new electronic machines are scheduled to be in place by the 2007 elections, but recent issues with the testing of the new machines could mean more delays.
Bob Brehm, deputy director of public information for the state Board of Elections, said Wednesday that the board, still in the process of certifying the new voting machines, had to do additional testing on the devices that could push the entire calendar for implementing the new machines back.
“Originally we expected it’d be done by December of 2006, but it looks like that date’s going to slip a little into early part of 2007,” Brehm said.
He said the state had to do more extensive testing on security, how many voters each machine can serve and various other factors.
“By how much and what kind of impact that’s going to have on the other dates on the calendar we’re still trying to determine, but our goal right now is still 2007.”
The deadline for counties to order the new machines has been pushed back from December to early January.
Counties will have the choice of either a direct recording electronic machine or an optical scan machine, both of which have been deemed HAVA compliant.
HAVA was passed as a result of voting problems in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. It is meant to help curb voter fraud and make voting easier for disabled people.
Because Howe and Democratic Election Commissioner Bill Wood are at an impasse regarding what type of machine to purchase for the county, it seems likely that that decision will fall to the state Board of Elections.
Howe favors the DRE machines, saying that by presenting a full-faced ballot on a computer screen and allowing voters to review their votes, they would be more accessible and less subjective.
Wood favors the optical scan machines, which cost about $8,500 each, because they preserve a paper record of each ballot cast. The DREs can cost as much as $10,000.
Wood was not immediately sure how much paper ballots would cost, but said the expense was justified because of the accuracy of the optical scan voting machines.
The county expects to receive $551,000 in federal funds for the voting machines, but that is not expected to be enough to cover the costs.
The total cost will not be known until the county determines how many machines it must buy, Wood said. That will be based on the type of machine selected and the state’s determination of how many votes each machine will be certified to accept during an election, he said.
Howe and Wood said they would likely draft a letter to the state Board of Elections after the elections, explaining that the two commissioners couldn’t agree on a machine.
Brehm said the state board had not yet gotten to the point of having a policy for dealing with such a situation, but said the board would likely just choose a machine for Cortland County.
“We’re still in the testing phase, we’ve got to make sure their compliant with New York state laws before we can ask the counties to make a decision,” Brehm said.


Getting through the flu

Preparation and cooperation key to pandemic response

Staff Reporter

CORTLAND — Responding locally to a pandemic flu would require cooperation among many local organizations and preparation by all county residents, officials said Thursday at a roundtable meeting.
About 50 people showed up at the event at SUNY Cortland to hear about Cortland County’s preparations for a pandemic flu, defined as a new virus that impacts people worldwide.
Four county leaders led the discussion — Pamela Griffith, supervising Public Health nurse for Cortland County; Raymond Franco, interim vice president of Institutional Advancement at SUNY Cortland; Dr. Douglas Rahner, medical director of Family Health Network; and Maria Whitaker, infection control officer at Cortland Regional Medical Center.
Jacquelyn Gailor, director of the county Public Health Department, moderated the talk.
Griffith said unlike the seasonal flu, a predictable flu that people have some immunity to, a pandemic flu involves a new strain of flu that people have no immunity to and that spreads globally.
The worst flu epidemic in the 20th century occurred in 1918 and was named the “Spanish Flu.” It killed 675,000 Americans and 20 million to 40 million people worldwide. Other flu outbreaks occurred in 1957 and 1968.
In dealing with a pandemic, each speaker emphasized cooperation among agencies. Griffith said the county would use more volunteers, and has already used volunteers for immunization drills.
“In a severe pandemic we’d see a high rate of worker absenteeism,” said Griffith, noting it could be as high as 40 percent.
Griffith suggested individuals practice good respiratory habits, such as covering nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing; storing an extra two-week supply of food, water, and medications (including over-the-counter ones); and to get involved in the community.
“During a pandemic flu, my goal is that the college is a resource for Cortland and the community,” said Franco. He said there are two paths the college is looking at — one if an outbreak is not bad enough to close school and the other if the college closes. He said in the latter circumstance, the college would become a community resource. Franco said the college’s student health center and staff could help assess patients if the hospital and other community resources were overwhelmed.
Franco said the University Police department is working on a memorandum of understanding with the city police so SUNY officers can work in the city.
Charles Poskanzer, a former SUNY Cortland health educator, asked about the wisdom of letting students go home if there is a flu outbreak, noting it would spread the flu.
Gailor said a pandemic flu would not just hit Cortland County, but would be hitting several areas simultaneously.
Franco said most pandemics break out someplace else in the world and then spread. He said it was unlikely the epidemic would first hit Cortland County. “It’s possible, but unlikely.”
Rahner said most health care facilities are within five miles of the Cortland Regional Medical Center, but the Family Health Network has clinics in outlying communities, such as Cincinnatus and Marathon.
He said the health centers would become the first line of defense. Rahner said if the clinics worked a 12-hour day, they could potentially see up to 2,000 patients daily, but that would not account for the possibility that 40 percent of staff might be absent due to sickness. The clinics serve 17,000 patients.