Thursday, April 2, 2009

Dollars and sense of lever voting

Faced with a massive fiscal crisis, many New Yorkers are incensed with the NY State Legislature's mandate to scrap trustworthy levers in favor of costly optical-scan computers with a history of hacking and breakdowns common to all computers.

Turning concern into action, New Yorkers are petitioning their county legislators to pass resolutions urging state legislators to save our levers. So far, four counties -- Columbia, Dutchess, Schuyler, and Ulster -- have done so. On April 20, Greene County's legislators will vote on whether to pass a save-our-levers resolution. Other counties are expected to follow suit soon. Towns are also taking action. New York's Association of Towns, which represents about half the state's population, was one of the first to pass a resolution urging the state to keep lever voting in New York.

As Irene Miller, AAUW Kingston Public Policy Chair and founder of NY Citizens for Clean Elections, explains, "A great many New Yorkers are truly angry that our elected state officials are forcing counties to go with computer voting when our levers now comply with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Despite the great threat computer voting poses for the safety of our vote, our state legislators are unnecessarily forcing taxpayers to shoulder millions not just for the initial cost of computers but also the recurring costs for staff training, on-call technicians, paper ballots, recounts, troubleshooting, maintenance, upgrades, and more."

Optical-scan computers cost between $11,000 and $12,000 each, with the total cost varying with each county. According to Mary Jo Jaeger, Deputy Budget Officer for Greene County, the cost for Green County came to $352,500 for 30 machines. Of this, she said, the county paid 5%, which came to $17,625. The other 95% was paid with federal monies. However, she says, that was only for the initial purchase of the machines. Her office has not yet compiled the figures for future operations of the computers, which will be the county's full responsibility.

Greene County Elections Commissioner Thomas Burke agrees that the levers are better and cheaper than optical scan computers. But, he says, since New York's counties have already bought the computers, "we should resign ourselves."

A question posed by Miller and other citizens is, "Why, if Commissioner Burke agrees that levers are better and cheaper, should taxpayers be saddled with bills that will tally far more than $17,625 for the much higher costs of operation in years to come? Why not consider that money a bad investment and cut the future drain on the budget right now?"

The problem, says Commissioner Burke, is that "the state leaves the counties no choice." The only recourse, he says, is litigation.

The reason counties have no choice is that NY State's Election Reform and Modernization Act (ERMA) mandates a switch to computerized voting, ostensibly to comply with HAVA, says Miller. But, she adds, "ERMA was passed in 2005, before New York installed ballot marking devices (BMDs) in 2008 for people with special needs in every polling place. Augmented with BMDs, our levers became fully compliant with HAVA. I and a great many New Yorkers hope the state will come to its senses and fix ERMA, especially in this unprecedented budget crunch "

If the state rescinds the ERMA mandate for computer voting, litigation would not be necessary. But if the state does not heed the counties' and citizens' urgings to remove the ERMA mandate, litigation is likely.

Attorney Andi Novick, Founder and Legal Counsel to the Re-Media Election Transparency Coalition of organizations across the state, is prepared to put forth a suit. After a great deal of legal research into New York State constitutional and election law, she is convinced that, "ERMA's lock into computer voting violates New York's Constitution, which requires an observable electoral process in which every step is transparent to both election officials and citizen watchers. Our lever system fulfills this, but computers do not."

Novick also takes issue with claims that certification of computers makes them safe. "Dozens of studies by computer scientists at major universities have shown that there is no way to guarantee the security of computer voting even if a computer is certified because computers can be programmed to function one way for certification testing and another during actual elections. "

Nor do voter verified paper ballots make computer voting safe. Novick says this is clearly demonstrated in the HBO documentary Hacking Democracy, which shows how optical-scan software can be programmed to internally switch voters' ballot choices without a trace.

Contact: Irene Miller, 518-678-3516,

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