New Yorkers demand Paper Ballots

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 3/10/03


The era of voting machines began in 1892 when New York State led the world in adopting mechanized vote counting technology. Ask many New Yorkers today, and they’ll swear we’re still using the vintage 1892 machines. While our machines are old – some dating back almost two generations – they’re not that old. And old, in this case, isn’t so bad. Unlike the new computerized touch screen voting machines in use in 42 states, our stiff clunky vintage lever machines produce an auditable paper trail. It’s a bear of a piece of paper – one that unrolls to the size of a small carpet – but it’s a tangible record of what went on inside each voting machine.

We’re Not Florida

Ultimately, it’s these venerable old machines that separate us from the banana republic states like Florida, whose election results are now marred by a mishmash of bizarre statistical anomalies – such as candidates receiving more votes than there are voters.

After the 2000 Florida presidential election debacle, Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, providing $3.9 billion in funding to put new voting technology in place by the 2006 election. Like the Patriot Act, however, HAVA passed on a knee jerk vote by Congress representatives who had little understanding of either the bill or of the ultimate ramifications of their vote. What HAVA did was provide federal funding for states to go out and buy new voting machines so that we’d never hear tell of another butterfly ballot or a hanging or dimpled chad. The bill didn’t however, specify what these flawed voting schemes would be replaced with.

In stepped a few Republican Party connected voting technology companies with some spiffy looking computerized voting machines – complete with colorful screens and the occasional blinking light. The sales teams told election officials around the country that the machines were as easy to use as home computers and as safe as ATM machines. The problem is that home computers are compromised by viruses, are hacked, and often crash.

Since they’ve been adopted, the new machines have proven as reliable as home computers, crashing often and occasionally throwing elections into question with bizarre anomalous results. And unlike ATMs, they don’t provide auditable receipts – so we are forced to believe, for instance, that inexplicable upset victories are real – and exit polls whose data we actually can audit, are wrong (for the latest collection of data on flawed election results, see The problem is compounded by the fact that the programs that run the machines are the intellectual property of the machine manufacturers who have won legal battles to keep the code inside the machines secret and immune to public scrutiny.

Not a Confidence Builder”

After Republicans defied all odds and swept Georgia’s first computerized statewide elections in 2002 (with results tallied by the Republican-connected Diebold Corporation), critics hacked into Diebold’s system and obtained copies of the “secret” software used in that state – passing it on to software security analysts for examination. According to London’s The Independent, one analyst, Roxanne Jekot, found the software to be ridden with security holes.  The programming was also riddled with embedded comments written by Diebold’s programmers saying things like, “This doesn’t really work” and “Not a confidence builder.”   Jekot was also worried by strange commands in the program to do things such as divide a category of votes by one.  The command shows how easily code can be introduced to divide or multiply votes for specific candidates.

Wired magazine reports that researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Information Security Institute found “stunning flaws” in Diebold’s Georgia program.  In addition to geek taboos such as embedding security passwords into program source code, the Johns Hopkins analysts found flaws that could allow voters to vote multiple times, or allow votes to be changed by a third party after being cast, in some cases by remote access. Another group of analysts, working on contract for the Maryland state government, according to The Independent, found 328 software flaws, including 26, which they deemed as putting the election “at risk of compromise.”

To add insult to injury, a study conducted jointly by the California and Massachusetts Institutes of Technology (MIT and Caltech) found the new touch screen machines, even in the absence of malice, to be more error-prone than the notorious punch card machines of election 2000 fame.  One major problem has to do with alignment.  The spot on the screen with the candidate’s name, may not line up with the coded segments of the screen that register a vote for that candidate.  Voters, in many recent touch screen elections, for example, have complained of machines that flash the opponent’s name when they try to vote for their preferred candidate.

Meanwhile, back in New York, voters continue to wrestle with their big gray steel dinosaurs, tapping away at stiff levers and yanking on worn old handles, opening and closing curtains left over from another era. But our elections are seldom contested – and when they are, we can recount the votes and put most concerns to bed.

Windex-o-phobic Sloths

That all might end. I’d like to chalk up the fact that New York resisted the flawed new voting technology as an example of foresight. But I know better. A government that hasn’t been able to deliver a budget on time for a generation doesn’t have foresight. In the wake of 9-11 our legislators even went as far as to pass an anti-terrorism bill that accidentally outlawed Windex (a noxious compound in a spray bottle). These aren’t great thinkers. The fact that we’re still voting on the more accurate 1950s era machines can only be credited to Albany’s lack of ability to accomplish any change – good or bad. In this case, we’ve benefited from our legislature’s sloth-like speed.

New York is now faced with having to either quick go out and buy all new voting machines, or lose hundreds of millions of collars in federal money. Put simply, the future of New York’s democracy is now in the hands of a bunch of Windex-o-phobes.

Here’s where we come in. It’s imperative that we contact our state legislators and let them know that the future of New York’s ability to accurately tabulate votes is on the line. And it’s important to let them know that the age of the voting machine is over. Currently, only about five percent of the U.N. member nations use voting machines of any sort to tabulate votes. The 113-year experiment has proven to be trouble-prone, with even mechanical lever machines vulnerable to manipulation.

Whether they’re touch screen, lever, button, Internet or keyboard based voting machines, the most comprehensive technical analysis now shows that they are all less accurate than old-fashioned paper ballots. Paper, it turns out, is still the best technology out there for accurately recording votes that can be recounted over and over again until all doubt about an election can be put to rest.

Today, technology has wed the accuracy of paper with the efficiency of computers, producing optical scan paper ballots. The technology works like this. Voters get a copy of a ballot. Unlike electronic voting machines that have flashed different ballots in front of different voters, all voters in a given district will receive an identical ballot, certified by poll watchers to contain the correct array of candidates. Voters then place a mark next to the candidates or propositions they want to vote for. When they are done, they pass their card through an electronic reader. If their vote is illegible, or they voted for too many candidates (over vote), the card reader rejects their ballot and they get to try again. If they cast an under vote, which means they failed to vote for a candidate in a certain race, the reader alerts them of this, giving the voter a chance to either cast the forgotten vote, or to maintain their vote for no one, before ultimately putting their card into the ballot box. The integrity of the count is maintained by random manual recounts of optical scan results.

Here’s what we know.


ęCopyright 2005

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