Monday, April 20, 2009

NYVV Asks Voting System Vendors for Announcements, Plans and Promises

In an April 15th open letter to vendors of computerized voting equipment, New Yorkers for Verified Voting (NYVV) cited what they call "the growing ill-will" and "understandably increased voter skepticism that many New Yorkers feel" toward the machines these companies want to sell to New York.

NYVV's letter points to reports of voting system failures from "around the world" published in the Daily Voting News, as well as two debacles right here in the Empire State:

Despite these difficulties, NYVV has continued to advocate for replacing New York’s mechanical lever voting system with a system of paper ballots, 97% of which will be counted only by computers.

According to New York's Election Reform and Modernization Act (ERMA), which requires the levers' replacement, paper ballots from only 3% of the computerized optical scanners must be hand-counted -- up to two weeks after an election. This has raised concerns among statisticians and election integrity advocates alike.

Now, says NYVV, the vendors have made the task of "creating enthusiasm" for this new kind of system even more difficult. Indeed, they say, the vendors' delays are making some New Yorkers "increasingly impatient" about the change.

To remedy this situation, NYVV urges the vendors to improve their image in order to "encourage citizen confidence." Their advice to the purveyors of these shoddy products:
  • announce quality improvement and staffing plans;
  • negotiate "supportive" policies for software licensing;
  • promise to adhere to original pricing; and
  • announce an "open source" software provision.
Critics of both NYVV and the vendors question whether such announcements, plans, and promises can make computerized vote-counting more acceptable to New Yorkers who are still reeling from the effects of scandals such as the AIG, Bear Sterns and the sub-prime mortgage meltdowns.

"I'm sure NYVV means well, but I question whether any assurances from vendors can make unverified, computerized vote-counting safe," said Joanne Lukacher, Executive Director of the Election Transparency Coalition.

Virginia Martin, who serves as an Election Commissioner for Columbia County, has called electronic voting "a boon for vendors and a nightmare for taxpayers."

"Federal law does not require the replacement of lever voting machines. They work well, we own them and they cost next to nothing. So why not keep them?" Lukacher said.

With respect to "open source" software, we learned some time ago that at least one vendor had already committed to disclosing their source code, provided however, that their voting system gets to be "certified." Unfortunately, as any computer scientist knows, investigating lost votes by reading source code is no better than investigating a building collapse by reviewing blueprints.

We commend NYVV for scratching the surface of what's wrong with computerized vote counting and the privatization of our elections, but we recommend that New Yorkers read an in depth analysis of the problems we will face, published by long-time New York election integrity advocate Teresa Hommel, the founder of

In her essay, "Back to Basics: New York should not replace our lever voting machines", Hommel methodically debunks the entire electronic vote-counting paradigm which, she suggests, is completely unnecessary for New York. Given her deadpan prose, we doubt that she's an "increasingly impatient" New Yorker when it comes to changing voting systems. Fortunately, patience can be a virtue.

We'll have more to say about Hommel's work in a future post.

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