Critics question integrity of new voting system

NEW YORK CITY–A group of election experts, including Columbia County Election Commissioner Virginia Martin(D), met earlier this month at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village to discuss their concerns about the state’s impending switch to new optical scanner voting machines.

“I came to this event because I find the input of this community of voting experts invaluable,” said Ms. Martin.

The occasion was a panel discussion featuring Douglas Kellner, co-chairman of the state Board of Elections; Mark Crispin Miller, NYU professor and author of Fooled Again, How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They’ll Steal the Next One Too (Unless we Stop Them); and attorney Andi Novak, founder of the Election Transparency Coalition NY, who hopes to mount a constitutional challenge to HAVA.

Despite the title of Prof. Miller’s book, the skepticism about the new voting systems cuts across party lines, and speakers at the meeting were not in agreement on all points. But all three share a passion for protecting the integrity of the election process. They believe electronic voting machines have significant drawbacks and two of the speakers want to keep the familiar lever-operated machines. That sentiment is shared officially by over 20 New York counties. Columbia County was among the first to join the movement in support of retaining the mechanical machines last January.

But Mr. Kellner dismissed the idea that municipalities will have the option to keep using the lever machines, many of which are decades old, rather than switching to the scanning systems. “That debate should be over,” he said at the July 9 gathering in New York City. He abandoned the fight to keep lever machines September 8, 2007, “the day the Democrat leadership gave up on trying to get Congress to change the law. We had no support outside New York State. Then we had to deal with the court order,” he said.

Indeed, the rest of the nation, spurred by the federal Help America Vote Act, acquired new voting technology, often with disastrous results. The federal law was adopted in reaction to the controversy surrounding the 2000 presidential election. But New York delayed until the federal Justice Department forced the issue, and in 2008 most counties opted to purchase paper ballot systems that rely on optical scanners. At the time, experts saw the scanner system as the lesser of two evils compared to the highly problematic computerized touch screen device, sometimes called DRE (direct recording electronic).

Prof. Miller decried what he believes is the national media’s neglect of the voting machine issue, which he said has hampered public debate on a problem that is “disabling democracy.”

“The frightening record of what goes on on election days is unknown because it has been neglected by the media,” said Prof. Miller, who called the United States the “epicenter of election fraud.”

“Potential for election fraud is vastly increased with electronic voting–an extremely sophisticated method for subverting the will of the electorate and a practice that is slowly being adopted worldwide with the blessing of officials who are either uninformed or corrupt,” Prof. Miller said. He foresees “horrible consequences” if the situation is not remedied.

He called for repeal of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), a ban on the use of computerized voting and a law that would bar the participation of private companies in elections. “We are privatizing our elections” he said. “The real purpose of HAVA, in my opinion, is to turn blue states into red,” he said.

“We can’t be self-governing people if we can’t vote. If the voting process is controlled by government, not by the people, then voting becomes a useless formality,” said attorney Andi Novak. “Distrust of government is part of our revolutionary heritage. Vigilance is required.”

But Mr. Kellner did not agree that the old lever voting machines are inherently more secure than the newer technology of optical scanning. “The word trust should be banned from the discussion of election administration. You can’t be sure when you pull down the lever that it advances the counter. We’re not trusting anything,” said Mr. Kellner.

For Ms. Novak, the problem with electronic voting is that “there are no eye witnesses; the critical step is outside our control. The code is hidden away,” she said, referring to the insistence by computerized voting machine companies that their computer code is a commercial secret not available to officials to review. To support her position she quoted earlier statements by Mr. Kellner that uncovering electronic vote fraud would require “an army of programmers, a number of years, and millions of dollars.”

While Mr. Kellner has worked to put in place multiple levels of safeguards to deter fraud, Ms. Novak believes that the voting law forcing the transition to electronic balloting is unconstitutional and “we are obliged to challenge it.” She plans to start with a legal challenge to the state law adopted to bring the state into compliance with HAVA.

When the speakers finished, Ms. Martin asked about a topic that may have the most immediate significance for local voters: cost. Mr. Kellner responded that changeover to the new machines is costing $200 million statewide, of which $50 million comes from federal funding. Counties are left to shoulder 5% of the total. Columbia County faces a one-time software licensing fee of $78,000, said Ms. Martin in a subsequent phone conversation, and every countywide election requires $30,000 to print ballots.

 

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