They keep voting honest, one ballot at a time

HUDSON-Columbia County’s election commissioners have counted 100% of the paper ballots in every election for the past two years, ever since the county switched to using new voting machines as part of a federal mandate. Their approach can delay the final vote tally and it may seem an odd when technology has taken over so many manual tasks.

But they question the accuracy of the results for the new machines and see no reason to stop checking them by hand.


“The most accurate and reliable method is a 100% visual audit,” Elections Commissioner Jason Nastke (R) said Tuesday. He referred to multiple scanner miscounts in Greenport in a past election. “The machines are not completely reliable,” he said.

“Hand counting allows for voter intent to be taken into consideration,” said Election Commissioner Virginia Martin (D). “If someone has circled rather than filled in the ovals, it counts when the ballots are hand counted, but with machine counting, the only allowed discrepancies involve machine error, not human error.”

Optical scanners were viewed as a welcome alternative when compared to the more expensive and less secure touch screen machines that were the only other option during the push to have counties purchase and install new voting machines in 2009. The changeover came after passage a decade ago of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), adopted to prevent another election failure like the one that occurred in Florida in the presidential election of 2000.

In a commentary published in the Times Union newspaper in Albany last week, Buffalo attorney Peter Reese wrote that the new voting system has led to “tens of thousands of invalid overvotes,” citing specific cases, including one near Buffalo that he was involved with. He blames New York’s HAVA compliance law.

Many voting activists favored the optical scanning system because it uses paper ballots that should allow an easy method of verification. Many hoped all the ballots would be posted online to allow easy oversight by citizens. But the law only calls for a small, random sampling of 3% of the machines to monitor accuracy. In Columbia County that would mean hand counting the results of one machine, said Ms. Martin. Both commissioners agree that a sample of this size is inadequate.

“Computer science tells us you can’t trust software to count votes,” said Howard Stanislevic, a computer engineer and computer voting expert who co-authored the New Jersey election law. He has criticized the New York statute on election audits, which he says nobody knows how to read. “Columbia County is doing the right thing by hand counting,” he said.

“For every scanner failure that’s reported, how many go unnoticed?” asked Mark Crispin Miller in response to an email question about Columbia County’s stand on hand counting. Mr. Miller is a professor of media studies at New York University and the author of the book: “Fooled Again, How the Right Stole the 2004 Elections”. As Mr. Crispin Miller sees it, “It’s impossible to know–and that’s why computerized elections have no place in a democracy. Not only are such systems prone to glitches, but they’re no more honest than whoever last programmed them. Hand-counting paper ballots, one by one, out in the open, is the only rational alternative.”

“The beauty of our situation is that the two election commissioners have agreed in advance to hand count ballots,” said Ms. Martin. After a primary, when one party might have the lead, it would be tougher to agree on something like this, she said.

“Although we’re looking into a different kind of audit, it seems easier just to hand count and you have great voter confidence…. We have a very strict chain of custody procedure, with redundancy built into our system. Those who see our accounting procedures know we leave nothing to chance,” Ms. Martin said.

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