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NY Loves Its Levers as New Systems Fail

By       Message Rady Ananda     Permalink
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Research conducted for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission confirms what Pfaffenberger found. An election day survey of the 2004 Presidential election conducted by Election Data Services showed that NY had a statewide undervote rate in the presidential race of just 0.77% -- among the lowest in the nation. (Ch.8, p.15)  Levers do not permit overvotes nor, unlike software-driven systems, switched votes (where a voter chooses one candidate, but the touch screen or optical scanner displays and/or records a different choice). 

Imagine how different the outcomes might have been in the 2000 and 2004 elections had levers been used instead of unreliable, exploitable, software-driven systems that counted easily altered, lost or destroyed punchcards. Professor Pfaffenberger details a history we are well advised to remember, especially in light of the punchcard shenanigans in Florida and Ohio:

"It is quite astonishing to realize that, while the lever machine was under development, inventors came up with just about every voting machine concept that has since been realized, including precinct-scan punchcard technologies, ballot printing machines, and even electromechanical systems that can be seen as predecessors of computerized technologies.  

"All of these technologies produced paper records, however, and all were flatly rejected, both by voters and election officials, as letting the possibility of fraud in through the back door.   

"Today, there are widespread calls to bring paper back into the picture, but the reason is that people do not trust the machines.   Having studied the history, I strongly believe that there would be no such call for paper if the ugly history of fraudulent practices enabled by paper ballots were known -- unfortunately, the American people have forgotten the lessons they learned a century ago, and I greatly fear that we will have to repeat them in order to learn them again."   

(emphasis added)

Those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it.  Pfaffenberger's point is well taken: our call for hand-counted paper ballots is directly related to our distrust of computerized voting systems and our ignorance of how prone a paper audit trail is to fraud. His warning relates specifically to paper-based systems: 

"Although lever machines do not produce an independent audit trail, this is -- as software engineers say -- a feature, not a bug. In the 1880s and 1890s, paper ballots emerged as the locus par excellence of election fraud; lever machines were expressly designed to take the human element out of every aspect of the vote recording and counting process in order to eliminate fraud that was gravely undermining Americans' confidence in their democracy." (emphasis added) 

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Lever machines were designed to remove paper; this feature was deliberate given how easy paper is to alter, lose or destroy.  There was to be no recount, because, as Andi Novick explains below in NY's Election Law History, it was: 

"historically understood that once the ongoing public scrutiny of the poll site ended and the results of the election night count were known, the count was at greater risk of subsequent tampering." 

We certainly learned that in Ohio during the 2004 recount.  Two employees from Cuyahoga, Jacqueline Maiden and Kathleen Dreamer, were convicted of tampering with the recount, resulting in felony convictions that were later expunged from their records.  New York has wisely recognized the vulnerabilities of post-election recounts, and forbidden them by law. 

Documented Lever Failures in NY 

No voting system is perfect.  Of 18,234 lever machines used in New York in 2006, a total of 1,036 problems requiring service were reported to the NY SBOE.  The time to fix such problems ranged from less than a minute to up to 2 hours (in one county), but most counties fixed the lever problem within 15 minutes.   

Of 18,234 machines, only 23 stopped working, and could not be repaired during Election Day – a failure rate of about 1/8 of 1% (0.126%), which stands in stark contrast to the 66% failure rate of certified electronic BMDs that Nassau County tested this month. 

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While the failure rate was a remarkable 0.126%, the breakdown rate of these 40-year-old lever machines in 2006 was 5.68%.  The 2004 breakdown and failure rates during the presidential election were slightly higher than 2006: 6.38% and 0.15% (1/6 of 1%), respectively. Can anyone imagine a computer or a printer lasting this long? 

Paper trail fan William Edelstein, who obtained the NY documentation, calculated breakdown percentages which ranged from 1.7 to 6.8% over the years 2000-2006.  He expressed this concern: 

"This rate of breakdown also begs the question of how many undetected errors occurred with no possible recount or audit." 

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In 2004, Rady Ananda joined the growing community of citizen journalists. Initially focused on elections, she investigated the 2004 Ohio election, organizing, training and leading several forays into counties to photograph the 2004 ballots. She officially served at three recounts, including the 2004 recount. She also organized and led the team that audited Franklin County Ohio's 2006 election, proving the number of voter signatures did not match official results. Her work appears in three books.

Her blogs also address religious, gender, sexual and racial equality, as well as environmental issues; and are sprinkled with book and film reviews on various topics. She spent most of her working life as a researcher or investigator for private lawyers, and five years as an editor.

She graduated from The Ohio State University's School of Agriculture in December 2003 with a B.S. in Natural Resources.

All material offered here is the property of Rady Ananda, copyright 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009. Permission is granted to repost, with proper attribution including the original link.

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Tell the truth anyway.

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