Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lever Machines - Who Says They Are Illegal?

One of the first questions most people will ask when confronted with warnings about Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) Touch Screen voting machines and Optical Scan ballot counters (Op-scans) is: "But aren't these analogous to banking at the ATM, and aren't scanners used to mark standardized tests? Both are used on a regular basis without a problem." Indeed, one vendor/manufacturer of ATMs is also a purveyor of Touch Screen and Op-Scan voting systems, although both the Touch Screens and the Op-Scans are generally much more shoddily made and engineered than your average ATM. The difference is transparency. If your money suddenly and unexpectedly disappears you are immediately aware of the loss. If your vote is lost or changed, you would never know. A little thing called the secret ballot really complicates things!

Two simple and comparatively reliable alternatives to computerized vote counting are the hand counting of paper ballots (HCPB) and the continued use of lever machines. Most presentations on HAVA (Help America Vote Act of 2002) compliance begin with the assertion that Lever Machines are now illegal and must be replaced by electronic voting machines. However, according to 2004 testimony by New York State Board of Elections Commissioner Doug Kellner:

The federal Help America Vote Act, 42 USC §§15301 et seq., will require substantial changes in election administration for the 2006 elections. In particular, 42 USC § 15481, sets minimum standards for voting machines. Our lever machines satisfy all but one of those standards, that there be at least one machine at each poll site that is 'accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.

Ballot Marking Devices (BMD) which will comply with HAVA's standards for disability access and will produce a paper ballot for the disabled voter have now been approved for use in New York State. As required by HAVA one such device will be available at each polling place for the November 2008 elections. Non-disabled voters will continue to use the lever machines in November 2008 or may choose to use the BMD . These BMD paper ballots will be hand-counted in 2008 but most county election commissioners are anticipating the use of Op-Scans to count paper ballots for all voters beginning in 2009.

ReMediaETC in upcoming posts will be demonstrating the risks to our democracy posed by computerized vote counting and, in challenging the security and lack of transparency of Op-Scans, will argue that the continued use of lever machines is legal under HAVA and should be used until it is determined that New York is in need of some other transparent and secure means of counting our ballots

Here is Commissioner Kellner in an interview from 2005:

Machines similar to today's lever machines were at the center of a voter-fraud scandal in the 1940s. The machines had mechanical counters similar to odometers that recorded how many votes were cast for each candidate. Some of the people responsible for counting the votes used pen knives to change the counters and thus the votes. Similarly, the counters used on today's machines could be adjusted prior to the opening of polls to provide an artificial advantage to a candidate. Unlike e-voting machines, which have all of its inner-workings hidden away as code, the working parts of lever machines are exposed to the world. The fraud of the 1940s was uncovered because volunteers from the polling stations noticed that the numbers on their machines at the counting location were not the same as when they left the polling station. Similarly, any tampering with a lever machine today would be plainly visible to the volunteer preparing it for poll opening. Becoming aware of fraud on an e-voting machine would be much more difficult, because so much of their inner-workings are invisible to all but the software programmers.

Fighting fraud carried out by code is also particularly expensive. Some e-voting systems run on 150,000 lines of code and to uncover whether fraud has occurred, or by whom and how, requires an army of programmers, a number of years, and millions of dollars. Even then, there is no guarantee that their examination will produce results.

The Hand Counted Paper Ballot Alternative will be discussed in an upcoming post.

- Joanne Lukacher