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New York: Suffolk County Executive Just Says "No" to Electronic Vote Counting PDF  | Print |  Email
By Howard Stanislevic, VoteTrustUSA   
September 16, 2006
Suffolk County, NY Executive Steve Levy went on record in Newsday today in favor of keeping mechanical lever machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), instead of newer electronic vote counting systems which have been fraught with problems in many other states. While some may see this as an act of defiance, others will realize that Mr. Levy has just been reading the law. With millions of dollars and the very integrity of our democracy at stake, it might behoove other officials to follow Levy's example.

According to Levy, as reported by Newsday's Martin C. Evans, the HAVA and NY State's Election Reform and Modernization Act of 2005 (ERMA), which were both written to avoid a repeat of the 2000 voting debacle in Florida, were designed to *encourage* localities to buy new voting equipment -- not to *require* it. Levy wrote in a letter urging his county's  elections commissioners to oppose the new machines, "We in Suffolk County should not be inconvenienced or forced to spend millions of our precious taxpayer dollars because counties in Florida had troubles with 'hanging chads'." Unlike lever machines, ERMA banned punch card voting systems in NY last year.

In the 2004 General Election, Suffolk County, located on eastern Long Island, had 1,037 precincts (known in NY as Election Districts), over 600,000 ballots cast, a 0.55% residual vote rate at the top of the ticket, and zero machine-related complaints in the Election Incident Reporting System, VoteProtect, a nationwide database designed to assist voter watchdog groups and their members. It's hard to imagine how an electronic vote counting system could perform significantly better than this, especially in light of the recent "meltdowns", "train wrecks" and confirmed reports of vote switching (which is physically impossible with lever machines) reported in primaries across the country this year as a result of the rush to electronic vote counting.

The Newsday story also quotes Levy as saying, "We're not going to ignore the law, but if we can get a decision that upholds our interpretation of the law, we won't have to expend millions of dollars and create anxiety."

Levy's opinion is consistent with previous public comments by NY State Board of Elections Co-Chair Douglas A. Kellner and federal Election Assistance Commission Vice-Chair Ray Martinez, both of whom have indicated that as long as Accessible voting systems are provided for voters with special needs, the levers may be retained under HAVA. NY has begun to provide the accessible machines in the form of electronic paper ballot marking devices -- not electronic vote counting systems such as Direct Recording Electronic (DRE) touch screen machines or optically scanned paper ballot systems. The paper ballots produced by the accessible machines can be hand counted, or optically scanned if the need should ever arise.

Poorly trained poll workers, excessive reliance on vendors, and lax federal voting system standards that allow as many as 1 in eleven electronic vote counting systems to fail in any 15-hour period have also been blamed for recent errors in vote counts, some of which have even resulted in incorrect electoral outcomes.

Only a robust auditing protocol such as the one outlined by the author in this paper and by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards) over 30 years ago,* but never actually implemented, can make electronic vote counting safe. Currently, NY requires an audit of only 3% of the state's electronic vote counting systems in each county, which would not be sufficient to confirm the outcome of many races on the ballot.

Until the electronic count can be assured with a high degree of certainty, Suffolk County's continued use of lever machines  would seem to be a wise course. As the old saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

* Roy G. Saltman, EFFECTIVE USE OF COMPUTING TECHNOLOGY IN VOTE-TALLYING, National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D. C. 20234, March, 1975, Appendix B. Mathematical Considerations and Implications
in the Selection of Recount Quantities
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