Sunday, February 22, 2009

Long-Time NY Election Integrity Advocate Opts Out of Op Scan

New York City--

Since the passage of HAVA, Teresa Hommel has been a tireless leader in the fight for voter-marked paper ballots in New York as an alternative to direct recording electronic (DRE -- usually touch screen) voting machines that lack a reliable voter-verified paper trail. But in a Feb. 22nd essay published on her website,, entitled: Why Keep the Lever Voting Machines?, she comes to the conclusion that the state should keep its current manually operated voting system, rather than switch to a computerized paper ballot optical scan (PBOS) system.*

Why? In a nutshell, because it's too expensive to make the switch and do it right.

Hommel writes:

For nearly six years we have worked against improper use of computers in elections. ... We have said, "IF WE HAVE TO REPLACE OUR LEVER VOTING MACHINES, we should choose PBOS." At this time it appears that no DREs are likely to be certified or purchased in New York. It is very late in the process to say, "Stop! Let's not computerize at all!" But that is what we are saying.
Rather than continuing to fight the last war (PBOS vs. Brand X, i.e., DREs), Hommel goes on to say that lever machines are more secure, easier to manage and less expensive to maintain and use than any other voting technology.

She says that in this time of economic crisis, the higher cost of computerized elections will have to be paid for with cuts to other essential services. Recent conversations we have had with county legislators and election commissioners bear this out.

In fact, so far at least three New York counties have passed resolutions in favor of keeping their lever machines, either unanimously or with only minor opposition, with more such resolutions expected.

Hommel also cites the need for continuous observation of post-election paper ballots to prevent fraud, as well as the need for statistically grounded audits (i.e., hand counts) of paper ballots initially counted only by computerized ballot scanners. Such audits would be designed to either confirm electoral outcomes or trigger full hand recounts when the outcomes are in doubt with a high level of statistical confidence.

But all of this costs time and money we don't have, according to Hommel.

In this realistic assessment of New York's electoral system, Hommel discusses the obstacles to keeping our lever machines, as well as the following benefits of doing so:
  • Lever voting machines cost less, require fewer observers, and don't use software.
  • Our counties don't have to spend one extra dollar to use lever machines, because we already have them.
  • Lever machine technicians are paid somewhat less than computer technicians.
  • Lever voting machines are rarely tampered with because it takes too much time to do so. For this reason these machines do not require a group of observers to sit and watch them continuously.
  • Without software that can fail in unexpected ways, software-independent audits are not required.
  • Lever machines are immune to systemic exploitation.
  • Meaningful, observable testing of lever machines can be readily accomplished.
  • Lever voting systems comply with HAVA when used in combination with accessible ballot marking devices for voters with disabilities and limited English proficiency. (See HAVA's definition of "Voting System" in Section 301 (b)).
We strongly recommend that anyone truly concerned about the integrity of New York's elections read Ms. Hommel's excellent piece in its entirety. It's a far cry from some of the dogma we have been seeing from some other advocates who apparently have not fully considered the problems of election verification, or what the solutions would actually entail -- even as they continue to advocate for more computerized vote counting under the guise of voter-marked paper ballots.

* Note: Of course, as in 2008, to comply with HAVA, accessible hand counted paper ballots would continue to be used to accommodate any voters with special needs who wish to use ballot marking devices at the polls, rather than voting absentee.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

New York -- Transparency vs. Certification: Fact & Friction

The Election Transparency Coalition of NY (ETC) has issued a 2 page essay entitled, Only a Transparent Vote-Counting System Can Protect Democracy, now available on their blog at the above URL and here in PDF format.

This short essay by ETC's Founder and Legal Counsel, Andi Novick, Esq., prepared with the assistance of county election officials and the E-Voter Education Project, clearly explains why:

  • New York's transparent lever voting system is superior to unobservable software-based voting technology;

  • state and federal "certification" of a software-based vote-counting system is not an adequate safeguard;

  • the risks inherent in post-election hand counting of paper ballots have caused New York to prohibit recounts of such ballots cast at polling places, except as required on election night before the election inspectors adjourn (we recognize that in other states where software-based vote counting has become the norm, post-election audits and recounts may be the best that can be hoped for to verify election results);

  • the Help America Vote Act does NOT ban lever voting systems, which can be made fully HAVA-compliant with the addition of at least one accessible voting device for voters with special needs at each polling place (as NY has done in 2008 without exposing anyone's votes to the risks inherent in software-based vote counting).
New York has yet to replace its lever voting system, and has yet to enact any meaningful post-election audit laws or regulations. Those of us who have been studying this problem for years as the battle over which software-based voting system (touchscreens vs. ballot scanners) has been waged, understand exactly what will be necessary to effectively verify election results produced by software -- independently of software -- and, where possible, with confidence approaching that provided by the current lever voting system. We also know what New York's counties will be asked to do to comply with such rules. The task ahead of us is clearly a daunting one, but moreover, it's an unnecessary one -- if we keep and properly maintain our mechanical lever voting system.

Professor Bryan Pfaffenberger of the University of Virginia, who received a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the lever voting machine, has described New York's current machines as follows:
one of the most astonishing achievements of American technological genius, a fact that is reflected in their continued competitiveness against recent voting technologies in every accepted performance measure;

a technology that solved the characteristic problems of American elections;

immune to systemic exploitation, which could affect hundreds of thousands of machines;

in sharp contrast to the way Americans talk about voting machines today ... the lever voting machine—though lacking an independent audit trail—had done something today’s voting technologies have been unable do: it won the confidence of American voters and election officials
After thinking it through and weighing the available alternatives, we are forced to agree with Dr. Pfaffenberger's conclusions. Transparency trumps "certification" every time.