Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Norco Has Two Days to Select New Voting Machines

Last November, we were lucky. We got away with using "Ol' Faithful," our 267 lever machines, in November's muncipal elections. Not only did the county save a fortune in leasing costs, but more importantly, the election itself was flawless. In fact, things went so well that even the cranky editors at The Express Times fired off a letter to commend the elections office.

That was then.

Now, three counties - Northampton, Lackawanna & Wayne - have just two days to select a new voting system for this Spring's primary. Today, five electronic touch screen vendors will strut their stuff at the courthouse at 1:30 PM. The following day, at 3 PM, a brand new elections commission will make a recommendation. And on Thursday, county council will decide whether to approve this recommendation.

Will the system that is ultimately selected be reliable? The state Commonwelath Court has ruled that voters have a state constitutional right to reliable and secure voting systems and can challenge the use of electronic voting machines “that provide no way for Electors to know whether their votes will be recognized” through voter verification or independent audit.

Twelve DOS-approved voting systems are produced by six different companies, but only four have unrestricted certifications. After the demonstrations tomorrow, I'll give you my take on each of the systems. Voting activist Dr. Alan Brau is already worried, and I'll share his concerns with you.

You are most likely aware that Northampton County is poised to pick another voting system after the failure of Advanced Voting Solutions to pass certification. The Diebold (renamed Premier) touchscreen system, used in Lehigh County is the frontrunner. Touchscreen DRE's do not provide any paper record of one's vote, making election fraud simple and undetectable. There is evidence that touchscreens have dramatically changed elections elsewhere in the country, but it is difficult to know for sure, since there is nothing to check or audit after the election.

Whatever system is purchased, it must have a voter verified paper record and appropriate auditing of counted results. My own preference is hand counted paper ballots, which are less expensive and more accurate, but realistically, this won't be accepted by the elections department or county government. My second choice is paper ballots, optically-scanned. The optical-scammers can be manipulated, but at least the paper ballot memorializes the voter's intent and can be manually counted after the election.

There will be a vendor fair with representatives from the voting machine companies certified in PA, some of which sell op-scans. It will take place at the new voting office on Wolf St. across from the courthouse at 1:30 on Tuesday afternoon. On Wednesday at 3 PM there will be a meeting of the elections board to make a selection and on Thursday evening at 6:30 PM, County Council will meet to vote on a system.

If you cannot make any of the meetings, please contact Mr. John Stoffa (610) 559-3000 or jstoffa@northamptoncounty.org and let him know how you feel about paper ballots being necessary for the security of elections. Touchscreen machines will not create confidence and will forever lead voters to question results of elections. Another argument against DRE's is that in a number of states touchscreen DRE's have been outlawed and may in the future be outlawed in PA. Why buy a system which will have to be scrapped if future legislation prohibits its use?

Also, if you know anyone on county council, please contact him/her to share your thoughts. Feel free to pass this e-mail on to others who may be interested.


Anonymous said...

Why not continue using flawless mechanical voting machines? I do not understand any reason why not! former NorCo Election Commissioner, larry@kisslinger.com

Anonymous said...

Because a Republican Congress pushed through the HAVA Act.

Anonymous said...

With old faithful ready to go and the new machines a total crap shoot, I would think that we can go through the primary and then spend more than 2 days making this decision. These machines should be assessed by indepent software and hardhare engineers as well as historical data collected. To leave this decision up to a inexperienced election board is only going to cost even more money in the future.

Who is the controlling authority on this? Is it a County, State or federal agency and what are the appeal for extension possibilities?

Bernie O'Hare said...

Not so casual observer,

It will cost the county $350-400k to lewase machines for one election. That is why it is in the county's interest to buy the machines if it can make a good decision quickly. If it can't, we pour money down the drain.

Dean N Browning said...

Anon 8:01

I'm not a fan of HAVA and the intrusion of the federal government into state matters particularly when they did not fully fund the process. HAVA was first proposed in 2001 and signed into law in 2002. While at that time the R's controlled the House the D's were in control of the Senate so calling it a "Republican Congress" is not correct. HAVA was a bi-partisan effort. The bill passed in the House with 362 votes in favor (165 D's) and 62 opposed. On the Senate side HAVA was sponsored by Christopher Dodd and was approved by a vote of 99-1. So it doesn't look like there was much objection to HAVA on either side of the aisle.

Anonymous said...

Figures - Rush Holt will be introducing a bill in Congress this week to give PA the $$ to replace the DRE's with paper ballots.

But, we will have already spent money on a new system.

Anonymous said...

not so casual - we have a primary coming up rather quickly - the county will need time to train pollworkers on any new system

Anonymous said...

Not if we use the old lever machines for the primary and get the touch screens in for the general. I guess I am asking if it is illegal to use the levers again this year, what is the penalty if we do use them and who has the say so about that?

Bernie O'Hare said...

not so casual observer,

The Pa DOS will not permit their use in this election. An attempt to do so would result in litigation.

Anonymous said...

PA DOS is being pressured by the Feds - it's a domino effect and we're the last domino in the string.

PA DOS has actually CAUSED many of the problems - they certified the AVS machines.. but it took them years to get around to noticing that the machines that were sold to the counties were not the same ones that were certified - even when the Citizens Advisory Committee informed PA DOS that there were serious problems afoot - Northampton County has been banging away at DOS for guidance, but DOS dragged their feet until the last possible moment - giving the counties virtually no time to re-tool.

Everybody should be hammering their state and federal reps on this (call them TODAY) - that's really the only thing that is going to produce movement - blaming the County is a waste of time since the County has NO discretion in this case.

And, Dean, despite the Senate margin in late 2001 and 2002, I do blame the Republicans - HAVA was ostensibly "supposed" to cure the type of ballot problems Florida experienced in 2000 - but if you take the time to read up on the history of what happened, you will see that the voting machine manufacturers "bought" influence from republicans - from Bush on down - there was no way the bill would have been stopped by the Dems - even if there was an outcry from the public. It's interesting to note that beginning in 2004, most of the Dem cosponsors of HAVA began advocating for major revisions (e.g Holt, to HAVA - to no avail. I'm not aware of any R's calling for the same changes, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.

Unknown said...

The federal Department of Justice is charged with enforcing compliance with HAVA. I note that New Yorkers have stood up to them, but compliance with the law does seem advisable.

Following is what I have written today to various county commissioners in Northampton, Lackawanna, and Wayne Counties, where the choice is being made, in hopes the choices will not be made rashly. Please pass this information along to whomever you deem appropriate.

Selecting a voting system for a county is a very serious matter.

There are many folks in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who are familiar with the applicable laws, the systems available, the mandates of the Help America Vote Act and its rolling increased provisions, the history of the Help America Vote Act, the computer systems involved in each vendor's products, and how all of this applies to Pennsylvania voters, and who have absolutely no financial interest nor electoral interest in this matter at all.

We stand ready and eager to speak with you before your county undertakes this decision. I will make a couple points here, but please know that we have lawyers, computer scientists, and others, available to speak with you at any convenient time. We are members of all-volunteer organizations, VoteAllegheny and VotePA (www VoteAllegheny org and www VotePA us). We want the citizens of Pennsylvania to have the best systems available.

We applaud your intentions in having a voting fair, but we have a major caveat to convey.

Having a voting fair and discussing systems with vendors, then making a decision based on economics - presuming all the systems to be equal - is a lot like planning to buy a car, going to a used car dealer and listening to his opinion about the cars, and then choosing the cheapest one, regardless of anything but price and without outside research or consulting anyone else. Maybe the color of the car figures in, but price is more important.

We have watched most of the counties in Pennsylvania do exactly this, and now they are laboring under bad decisions or soon will be paying too much for their choices. I live in Allegheny County, and we have a multitude of experts here providing research and information to folks across the state and the country, yet over and over decisions have been made by only consulting with the vendors' representatives, or worse by only staff persons consulting with vendors.

Please do not make a hasty decision; please do some research ahead and make an educated choice. We want to assist you in any way possible.

The best provision of the Help America Vote Act (possibly the only good and timely one) is that which mandates that members of the disabilities community be afforded a maximum amount of independence in casting a vote.

Our research shows that the touchscreen machines available now in Pennsylvania are the most difficult for persons with disabilities to use. Better systems for these concerns are AutoMark ballot marker (which works to privately mark an optical scan ballot) and AccuPoll (which is not currently available, but which would have been the best system for Pennsylvania voters - a DRE which acts as an optical scan and offers voter-verified paper to even Pennsylvania voters, not to mention tax money to Pennsylvania based on its distributor's location).

Of utmost importance to the citizens of the country is the security, recountability, safety, accuracy, and voter-verifiability of the vote. The League of Women Voters has indicated this, as have many studies by states and prominent organizations. Some links to studies appear below, and on our website.

None of the DRE (touchscreen) machines available in Pennsylvania (nor any currently available anywhere) offers anywhere near the verifiability of the vote that we should be demanding. In Pennsylvania, where no voter-verified paper record is available for any DRE system, voting on these systems is the same as shouting your vote to a man behind a curtain, and expecting that he is writing it correctly and duly reporting all votes dictated to him.

At the moment, the best system available is precinct-count optical scan. The reason it is best (and we do not say that even it is wonderful) is because by virtue of the voter filling out the ballot him/herself, it is a voter-verified paper ballot. As long as that piece of paper is considered to be the official vote of the voter, and as long as a mandatory random recount of 5% of the vote happens after each election (to help keep everyone honest), this is our safest method for the moment. The reason for precinct-count is that voter errors or oversights can be detected at the precinct with the voter still present, rather than later at the central tabulating location.

Computers are meant to streamline our work, not to do it for us. It is fine to have computers quickly count the votes, but keeping them, recording them, and being the only record of them is not within their job description. Having someone else program a computer and then not being able to see the programming but trusting it with something as precious as our vote is brazenly stupid. In all honesty, the vendors do not release their programming for scrutiny by the public (except the currently unavailable AccuPoll) because (a) it has been shown by evidence to be very shoddily written, and (b) some of it contains Windows applications, and Windows is proprietary to Microsoft.

This is also true of the tabulating programs for the currently available optical scan systems, but again since they offer recountable paper and counties can mandate 5% recounts, there is somewhat increased security.

One member of our organization, who is also an elected official, appears at Board of Elections meetings with his garage door opener and tv remote. He holds them up and says, "I can change the results of the election." He is exactly correct. We use touchscreen machines.

Listed below are several sources of information, some current and some archival but very important.

Of course I cannot post the actual links, but they are searchable, and all but two are referenced on VoteAllegheny's org website.

Recent Interview on Democracy Now radio program about NY Times Magazine article of January 6, 2008

Also available through our site:

California Secretary of State's 2007 Reports on Voting Systems

Princeton University Security Analysis of the Diebold TS, September 2006

Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law report

Software Review and Security Analysis of the ES&S iVotronic Voting Machine Firmware, for the Florida Department of State, February 23, 2007

"Will the Election Be Stolen?" article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Rolling Stone magazine, October 6, 2006

"Was the 2004 Election Stolen?" by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Rolling Stone magazine, July 2006

Hacking Democracy

And available from this website is a new film: www uncountedthemovie com.

Thank you.

A. N. Glickman

WhetherVain said...

2 things. 1st, I wonder, was Brau's comment "The optical-scammers can be manipulated" a typo or intentional?

2nd, thanks to your influence for moving me to a small degree of political advocacy, I had attended a nearby meeting of the Lehigh County Commissioners this past summer during their "Government on the Go" road show appearance around the county. Mr. Browning may recall my visit and speaking at that meeting.

I went for selfish reasons (concerning my interests in the office that oversees our county's voting operations). As usual, there was a table outside the meeting with agenda related items.

During a quick review of their contents, I noticed an item on the 2008 Capital Plan of only $1.00 next to an item labeled Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT).

Chairman Percy Dougherty kindly explained to me that this is a way of connoting that, in fact, the County has a blurry picture of what's coming down the road in regards to these voting issues. (That's unsettling considering the amount of money directed towards this governmental function.)

It was then that I realized - not being politically astute - how State/Federal mandates have a way imposing themselves in a BIG way into our local governments & their budgets. Our local politicians surely have a hard time trying to formulate responsible budgets when land-mine issues such as this may go off at any time (and for how much, who knows?)

This whole (HAVA) voting thing is a real mess if you ask me. The amount of (un)necessary paperwork and intricately/legally worded "placards" we get at the polls (most of which is thrown away afterwards) is a real waste; no one reads that stuff and probably couldn't understand it if they DID!

If the public only realized how much money we put into each election, they'd be shocked. At my poll alone, the payment to the poll workers is in excess of $550.00! Multiply that by all the polling places that exist in Lehigh County TIMES TWO (because we do this twice a year!) And this doesn't account for the acquisition/upkeep/storage/programming of the voting apparati themselves. If you view this from a statewide perspective, it's even more alarming. And then look at the disappointing turnout we get. What a cryin' shame.

As much as I like computers, I agree with flybylight in revisiting the use of scanned documents. But I have no response to WHAT HAPPENS TO THE MONEY WE ALREADY SPENT ON OUR CURRENT TOUCHSCREEN EQUIPMENT.

BTW, the Capital budget I referred to above, DID also have $50,000 directed to a line item labeled Optical Scan. Our commissioners are thinking ahead!

WhetherVain said...

oh ... and I forgot to add the great frustration we Pennsylvanians have given our place on the national stage with our late Presidential Primary election is just added salt in the wound.

Chris Miller said...

This mess came about because of the 2000 presidentil election where Al Gore decided to take his case to court betting that George Bush would simply fold his tent and go away. That did not happen and we are now reaping the harvest of this mess and will continue to do so in every presidential election unless we the people promise to change the jobs of the folks at all levels of government. The 2000 election made it perfectly clear how ignorant we are as a people when folks gladly admitted they knew nothing about the electoral college or if they did believed it should not apply. What we really need to do here is stop the massive election cycle that now goes on for the presidency. Let's face it, this year's election actually started in 2006 when supposed candidates were being interviewed as to whether or not they would be a candidate. Then we had an entire year of campaigning in 2007 and now we get into another leg of the campaign, the primary, then the conventions, followed by the general election campaign, then the general election followed by the post-election waiting period to see who really won. What a mess. Third world nations run better elections than this. It also makes one wish for the efficiencies of a dictatorship. What we need is to stop the foolishness, go to paper ballots across the nation, go to a national presidential primary in the spring of 2012 and then the general election in November of 2012
NORCO will of course not do paper ballots due to the costs and let's face it they needed to spend that $200k on redoing council's chambers. Thus council really has but one choice, optic scanners because they have a paper trail, something voters have wanted from the beginning particularly us old folks. Sorry Dottie.

Unknown said...

If we ever get the voting systems issue rectified, we can move on to other voting matters such as those suggested by Chris.

Wouldn't it be wonderful for all the parties to have equal access to the ballot? For any political party to be equally able to run a candidate, without having to get tens of thousands of signatures more than the major parties must get?

Why do we - the public - finance the primaries for the two wealthiest political parties? Not to mention the conventions. Why should we pay for this at all? I speak as a member of one of them, but Pennsylvania is so backward in this regard - other states permit Independents to vote in primaries, for instance. Other states permit other parties to run candidates, although I believe no other state provides primaries for anyone other than Dems and Reps.

Here in Pennsylvania we have "endorsement votes" by local party representatives (whom most citizens cannot remember electing), followed by expensive primaries.

What we need is ranked voting (Scientific American indicated it is the most democratic method several years ago), and permission for anyone to run. Then maybe the citizens will pay attention to the candidates, scrutinize them personally rather than letting some elected yahoo and buddies do it, and denote which candidates are preferred.

(Ranked voting is done by voting one's favorite, second favorite, third, etc., and then point values are assigned. The most number of points wins the election.)

First we have to get the machines right. Then we can discuss the rest of this.