In the wake of last month’s first statewide election without lever machines, news outlets are littered with reports of breakdowns of the new electronic election equipment. Even more haunting than stories such as nearly 200,000 votes being found in NYC a month after election day is the truth beneath the headlines: that New Yorkers cannot depend on the accuracy of November’s election results. The worst problems with electronic vote counting cannot be observed by voters, candidates, or election workers. Without a change mandated by the courts or successfully demanded by the public, public control of elections has become history.
Fortunately, some of us have not given up.
The Election Transparency Coalition (ETC) continues to work to bring our lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s election law (ERMA) to court. Nassau County’s suit – largely based
Meanwhile, did you know that one NY county is refusing to count its votes by computer?
ETC: Why did you decide to do a hand count in Columbia County?
Virginia Martin: I’m responsible, along with my counterpart, for the accuracy of the vote count, and when I certify an election, I’m attesting that the results are accurate. It would be the height of irresponsibility for me to certify results if I couldn’t understand, examine, or feel confident in the vote-counting mechanism employed. And I have no reason to be confident about a software-based tabulation of secret ballots. The software might contain an inadvertent error or it might have been hacked-yet in neither case would I necessarily be aware that there was a problem. I don’t have the proficiency to examine all the programs involved, and even if I did, I’ve not been given access to them. And even if I had, I certainly wouldn’t have the time to study them.
In contrast, I have full access to the mechanism by which votes are counted by hand. I can watch competent vote-counters from my party as they examine each ballot, determine the valid votes, and add up their tallies. I know my counters are fully able to execute their duties and that they are fully engaged in that process. I know that everything my counters do is overseen by counters from the other party, which means that all totals have the blessing of opposing interests. That kind of bipartisan oversight confers tremendous credibility to them.
Which is to say that I’m not the only one to gain confidence when results are hand-counted. Our voters do, too. They can appreciate that the process is in the hands of ordinary people, not computer scientists who are expert in the technicalities of highly complex voting systems. (Our county would be loath to burden our taxpayers with that personnel cost, at any rate.) If we entrusted our tabulations to experts, only two people (one from each party) in our entire county would be capable of understanding the process on which our democracy rests. And I wouldn’t even be one of them! Our entire electoral process would inscrutable, unfair, and elitist. I think it’s a disservice to make election operations inaccessible to the ordinary person, and that’s what happens when highly sophisticated software programming is employed as the method of counting.
VM: We had to develop a great many highly specific procedures in order to ensure (and, after the fact, to confirm) that the chain of custody would always be unbroken, that no process would be undertaken unilaterally, and that correct results would be reported. Since the ballot would be the source of our vote results, and since paper ballots are highly vulnerable to tampering, ballot-handling processes had to be spelled out in high detail to ensure that we’d have a fully elaborated account of the disposition of each and every one. To lesser degree, we did the same concerning the security of our voting machines and their components. All this was necessary to sustain the commissioners’ and the voters’ confidence.
The count is taking longer than anticipated, due in part to the number of races and the number of candidates in each race, as well as the necessity to coordinate the bipartisan execution of the great many processes involved. But our counters are fully engaged and excited about doing the right thing for the county; they’re keenly aware that it’s due to their work that we’re getting our election right.
ETC: What are the implications for future elections in Columbia Co. and beyond?
VM: Under NY’s new election law, the Election Reform and Modernization Act (ERMA), elections will be far costlier than ever. Taxpayers will have good reason to complain about elections costs, and they will strongly oppose the adequate funding of secure elections. That’s because the outsized challenge of guaranteeing security in electronic elections, and the ticket price of the electronics, their auxiliary components, the software, and the permits, is sky-high. Little by little, beleaguered elections staff may lose their resolve to fight for the resources they’ll need to run a truly secure election. Little by little, county legislators may grow tired of election officials’ arguments when surrounding counties have accepted the vendors’ and the state’s assurances that their equipment and processes can guarantee a secure election. If and when that happens, the people lose control of their elections.
On the bright side, if 100% hand counts can be sustained year after year, and especially if they can be introduced on election night at each poll site, an important opportunity for civic participation would be realized. A hand count is a decentralized, more democratic, less costly, and locally beneficial use of resources, and it beats-hands down-the cost of hardware and software that originate from beyond the county’s, and perhaps the nation’s, limits. What would have to be ratcheted back is an ingrained expectation of instantaneous vote totals, but that could be done, because the implications of a few hours’ delay are arguably insignificant.
There is another alternative: Columbia and all other NY counties could return to our affordable, secure and trustworthy voting system: lever machines plus ballot-marking devices that provide increased access for many voters with disabilities. For this to happen, ERMA would have to be repealed by the state legislature or overturned by the courts.
I encourage New Yorkers to keep an eye on Nassau County’s lawsuit and to support ETC’s efforts to bring its own lawsuit to achieve this goal before the next election.
[end of interview]
ETC thanks Virginia Martin and all of those from Columbia County who have worked to maintain public oversight of the election. Commissioner Martin’s opinion piece, “Your Vote Counts,” recently appeared in the Columbia Paper and is also available online.
If you’d like to help bring our case to court or educate the public about the dangers of electronic vote counting, contact us.
We thank you all for your ongoing support of ETC’s work.
for the Election Transparency Coalition
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