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Avante's (Not Very Good) Offer to New York Voters

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“Comply with the law, or take your business elsewhere” is an excellent response to a vendor who essentially said to New York - take my business on my terms or we vendors may not want to do business with you, New York. After choosing to ignore New York’s 2005 law requiring voting vendors to place the source coding for the software that runs their voting systems into escrow with the State Board of Elections (SBOE), Avante has the gall to make this disingenuous argument in which it purports to blame New York for Avante’s refusal to comport with our Law.

The source coding for the software for the operating system itself as well as the election management system (EMS), which contains the software that actually tabulates the vote, is claimed to be secret, proprietary information by these private corporations that think it’s OK for such essential information to be concealed from the public- whose elections these are, after all. Under New York’s law, at least the SBOE is required to view this source code (even as we the public are left in the dark); hence the escrow requirement. Now that New York is preparing to restart testing voting systems Avante, a vendor who never had any intention of complying with NY’s escrow laws, argues at the 11th hour that our Law is so unfair (to Avante) that it deserves to be violated!

Well that’s a fairly outrageous position (unless you believe that NY laws should be written for the benefit of private voting vendors rather than the citizens of NY). Indeed it would be hard to come up with a more un-American argument than: I, Avante, want to make sure that no one ever sees how our computers process and count the votes of New Yorkers so New York should disregard its law and allow us to keep this vital information concealed! And yet that is precisely what Avante is demanding.

Well one can’t really argue something quite so treasonous to the very notion of democracy so Avante creates a specious argument to hide behind by extending NY’s Law to an illogical conclusion. Avante argues that under the statute vendors would be required to escrow not only the source coding for the software of the voting system (the software that configures and controls the election day tabulation and accumulation of election results), but the source code for the hardware as well, knowing that no one could ever meet the requirement for the latter since suppliers of off-the-shelf-hardware (i.e., the scanner or printer) won’t provide same. Therefore Avante concludes that if all the source code for both the software that actually determines the processing and tabulating of the vote, as well as for the lower level firmware coding (firmware is the source code embedded in a hardware device) can’t be made available to be escrowed, than none of the source code should be escrowed—even the critical source code which would permit the SBOE to determine how the computer was programmed to process and count votes! This is Avante’s all or nothing position.

Perhaps a more concrete example, less shrouded in the world of technology, can expose just how intentionally misleading Avante’s argument is. Suppose your home is located in a high-theft area. You investigate the possibilities for some security and discover that the various burglar systems can wire your house and connect you to the police station, thereby reducing the risk of theft by 65% (I’m making these numbers up just to illustrate a point). Why can’t we get better than a 65% risk reduction, you ask. Well there’s no such thing as 100% security: a smart thief can find a way to deactivate the system, but having these securities in place, you are told, will deter the theft 65% of the time. If you want additional security, have your neighbors check on your house when you’re away—that’s always a good low tech way of providing additional security.

Mr. and Mrs. Avante homeowner would say, forget it. If we can’t have better than a 65% shot at preventing theft to our home, then we don’t want any alarm system at all. We’ll just leave our home totally exposed and have faith that things will be OK somehow. Clearly this all or nothing position is nonsensical and yet this is precisely the position argued by Avante in support of its claim that NY’s Law, requiring some security that the voting systems aren’t faulty or rigged by having the source coding that might reveal same archived with the SBOE, should be eliminated so as to require no source code escrowing at all.

In the world of computers, be they voting or any other type, there is no such thing as 100% security. No such technology exists (which by the way is precisely why we need our neighbors to check: check on our house in the above analogy, or check that the computer properly counted the votes by a partial hand-count on election night). While there is no such thing as tamper-proof software, there are things that can be done to make our voting computers less insecure. Providing open source software is a start. That way others can see the defects in the system’s design or view the intentional codes put in to rig an election (open source soft code would be open to the public and therefore would not need to be escrowed with the SBOE).

Avante doesn’t want us to see how it has designed its voting computer to process and count our votes. If it did it would have used open source software, but it chose not to. It is only those vendors who choose to use secret proprietary source code that are required to escrow same so that at least the SBOE can see what is otherwise concealed from the public.

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Having chose to use secret software to process and count the votes, which Avante cannot fully escrow because they relied on Microsoft software to create its voting system, Avante now argues that since Kodak or some other hardware supplier isn’t going to give you the source code of the firmware for its scanners or printers either (it would be good to see this lower level firmware coding, but not nearly as important as seeing the software source code for the operating and tabulating functions of the computer), out should go the proverbial baby with the bathwater (and any ability to view the way the computer is programmed to tamper or not tamper with the vote).

It is true as Avante’s VP states, that there is a dispute at the SBOE over how much source coding needs to be escrowed, but to argue that therefore nothing should be escrowed is not only contemptuous of its responsibility to comply with the law in New York, but exposes Avante’s argument for what it is: self-serving and disingenuous. Equally deceitful is Avante’s claim that “It is not possible to design new equipment with new operating systems, new EMS …… in less than a couple of years. And that is, if the vendors wanted to do this.” If New York chose an open source code optical scan system, we’d have a voting system in place tomorrow, not two years from now. What Avante claims is impossible to create actually already exists.

Trust us, Avante concludes because “Vendors voting equipment has been proven worthy around the country.” Really? One needs only look at the extensive evidence of faulty equipment, excessive breakdowns, tampering, vote flipping, mysterious under votes (voters who wait on line to cast votes for the minor races, but strangely decide not to cast a vote in the major races), impossible tabulations like phantom voters (precincts where thousands vote for a particular candidate, but only hundreds are actually registered to vote in that precinct), the list of voting equipment unworthiness is long, see for eg. http://www.votersunite.org/electionproblems.asp?sort=date&selectstate=ALL&selectvendor=&selectproblemtype=Machine+malfunction.

Perhaps it is Avante’s closing line, in arguing that New York should change its law so as to eliminate any escrow requirement (such that New York could never know how the computers were programmed to count the votes) that is the most honest and revealing of Avante’s claims. Avante’s VP writes: “The point of changing the law is to allow NY to certify new equipment. The current law makes that impossible. There is no intent to reduce the integrity of the vote.” Well the Law was not written for the Avantes of the world merely to permit them to certify the machines using secret proprietary software. To the contrary, the Law was written for the citizens of New York so that we would not be forced to rely on private vendors to let us know how their computers counted our votes, with no way for us to see how those machines were programmed.

To Avante and the other vendors who would like us to trust them because “There is no intent to reduce the integrity of the vote” I would say, thanks, but no thanks. NYS Law had no intent to prevent you from doing business in our state. That was your choice by creating voting systems which count our votes in secret.

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http://electiontransparencycoalition.org/
Andi Novick Election Transparency Coalition, www.etcnys.org, http://nylevers.wordpress.com/

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