On Wednesday afternoon I stood with a curious group of voters at the Carroll Gardens library, listening to a presentation by Jason Garcia, a voter outreach specialist from the state Board of Elections.
In September, he said, a new device - the ES&S DS200 Scanner - would replace lever voting machines across the five boroughs. We all stared at it. It clearly would not emit the traditional metallic crunch of a completed New York vote.
So could we trust it at all?
I am 30 years old and grew up in a world of advancing gadgetry. I remember when Pac Man was cutting edge and mobile phones were clunky plastic bricks with antennae that mysterious businessmen carried in briefcases. Today, I have kept sufficiently in-step with computers to set up a blog and access it from the little vibrating candy bar that lives in my pocket.
My father, on the other hand, is terrified of technology. To him, a computer is an electronic instrument built to churn out confusion and lies. He is suspect of any machine that “scans” things.
Keeping that in mind, when Garcia asked for volunteers to try the new voting system, I had to try it twice, once for my blog-writing, cellphone-wielding self, and once for my father who, like a protagonist in a Terminator movie, has never trusted a machine in his entire life.
The procedure was simple enough. Get a paper ballot. Fill in the oval under the candidate you want. Take your completed ballot to the scanner - which resembles a photocopier - and place it in the machine's tray.
The scanner automatically takes the paper, scans it, then the machine's touch screen display tells you if you over-voted - choosing two mayors, for instance - or if you forgot to vote for anything.
The machine then asks you to "confirm" or "return ballot." If you're satisfied, you confirm and your ballot drops into a large black bin under the scanner. If you want to mark different candidates or you've made some mistake, you hit return and a poll worker will void your ballot and give you a fresh one.
On top of all this, the ballots themselves are in English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean, and you have the same language choices on the scanner's touch-screen display.
A memory stick inside the machine keeps a scanned copy of each ballot and an automatic tally of votes so counting will take seconds instead of days. But if needed, paper ballots will be stored below the machine.
After being explained all of this, it was time to see what the DS200 was really made of.
For my first sample ballot, I followed Garcia's instructions. He had explained things perfectly, and even used the magic word: it would be just like a Scantron test.
Luckily Scantron and I are pretty tight. If you are not familiar with Scantron, ask anyone who went to public school in the 1980s. It dominated the world of standardized multiple-choice tests. Like the rest of my generation, I had hundreds of hours of Scantron-ing by the time I left high school.
For ballot number one, I dutifully marked one candidate for each contest on the ballot.
Next came the touchy part. I fed my completed ballot into the scanner. Moments later the touch screen informed me that I had selected correctly for all races. I confirmed my choices and heard the ballot drop into the basin below. The machine thanked me.
But the machine wasn't going to like what came next. I asked for a fresh ballot and loaded it up. Now it was man against machine.
I over-voted and under-voted. I even voted for a mango and a gorilla by write-in. Then I put the ballot into the machine - and it exploded! Okay, it growled and started drooling. Okay, the truth: it worked exactly as Garcia had described.
The machine identified each contest I had double-marked or left blank. When I hit the return ballot option and my ballot re-emerged. After I put the ballot back in, the same prompt appeared. The machine gives you the choice of intentionally over-voting, so I tried it. I confirmed my overloaded ballot and it dropped into the black reservoir.
So, the verdict on the DS200?
It's 2010 and New York is still under federal mandate to conform to the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Something has to happen. Adopting a new technology, like believing in the fairness of the electoral process, requires a certain leap of faith.
But can you ever know for sure that no ballot has been left uncounted? If your mind is alight with conspiracy theories about infected microchips and electronic vote rigging, my advice is to find where the NYC Board of Elections will visit next and make sure you're there.
The new voting device has no lever and it doesn't crunch, but it double-checks ballots and leaves a paper trail. If you fear the new machines, the best thing you can do is test one before the September 14 primary.