Bostonians debate voting systems

Choosing voting technology in Boston has been no tea party.

The city's Election Department recently purchased voting machines that use optical-scanning technology instead of touch-screen systems, a move that has embroiled lawmakers and election officials in a heated conflict.

Boston purchased Accuvote optical-scanning systems from Diebold Election Systems of North Canton, Ohio, to equip each of its 254 voting precincts with technology to read paper ballots. According to election officials, the optical scanners cost about $1.3 million.

Critics have said the city should have purchased touch-screen technology, which is easier for some voters to use and could save money over the long term. But election officials who bought the equipment said buying optical-scanning machines saved money and got the city reliable technology.

The dispute prompted the Boston City Council to hold a hearing on the decision. 'There is some concern about where the technology is with voting machines,' said Andrius Knasas, spokesman for councilwoman Maureen Feeney. The councilwoman believes the city should have waited to replace its lever voting machines until touch-screen systems receive state certification, Knasas said.

For out-of-towners

George Pillsbury, executive director of Boston Vote, a voter advocacy group, said the optical-scanning devices 'are bad for large cities. They are not bad for towns or rural communities, but they have disadvantages for cities above 100,000 population.'

Pillsbury said optical-scan systems require election officials to print thousands of ballots, including some in foreign languages, and to hire and train extra poll workers. He said Boston would eventually pay more for its optical-scanning systems than for comparable touch-screen systems because of the continuing costs of printing ballots.

'It is a very good deal for the vendors because in most situations the vendor does the printing,' he said. 'You have to prepare the ballot in a very short time and get it right.'

Boston Vote said the city should not have purchased optical-scan systems because touch-screen systems are easier for handicapped voters to use.

'We have talked to other jurisdictions that use the touch screens and swear by them,' Pillsbury said. Boston Vote urged the department to lease the optical-scan machines rather than buy them.

But Nancy Lo, chairwoman of the election department, said the city worked with election technology specialists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the California Institute of Technology before buying the machines.

Lo said Diebold presented the lowest bid and the best proposal.

She added that if Boston had chosen touch-screen technology, it likely would have spent about $10 million. Plus, the Secretary of State Office is far from certifying touch-screen technology for state elections.

Meanwhile, Boston stands to receive $800,000 in federal funds to help pay for the optical-scan systems, or about 60 percent of their cost, Lo said.

Eighty percent of Massachusetts cities and towns use optical-scan equipment, Lo said.

'I have talked to my counterparts, and they love it. They say things are faster and more accurate,' she said. Formerly, when polls closed, tallying work would take an hour or two. 'You finish quicker; you push a button and you get the results.'

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