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In Defense of Lever Voting Machines

By       Message Richard Hayes Phillips     Permalink
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Richard Hayes Phillips, Ph.D. Presented to the Regional Mensa Convention Columbus, Ohio, July 26, 2008

I am a native of upstate New York. I have been voting on lever machines since 1972. They may be old-fashioned, but their durability is proven by the very fact that they are still in service. I am not alone in trusting them. So does Bryan Pfaffenberger, Professor of Science and Technology at the University of Virginia, who was awarded a National Science Foundation grant to study lever machines. Pfaffenberger agrees that the reliability of lever machines, which were expressly designed in response to fraudulent counting of paper ballots, "has been proven in a century of service." He concludes that, "the lever machine deserves recognition as one of the most astonishing achievements of American technological genius."

I am on record as an advocate of paper ballots, counted by hand, at the polling place, in full public view, on Election Night, no matter how long it takes. I arrived at this position as a direct result of an audit of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio, undertaken at an unprecedented scale, under my direction. Rady Ananda, an election integrity advocate and a veteran of the Ohio investigation, is quite correct in stating that "our call for hand-counted paper ballots is directly related to our distrust of computerized voting systems."

Pfaffenberger believes "that there would be no such call for paper if the ugly history of fraudulent practices enabled by paper ballots were known." To the contrary, I am well aware of an astonishing variety of fraudulent methods utilized in Ohio, where, in the 2004 election, 85% of the votes were cast on paper -- 70% on punch card ballots, and 15% on paper ballots run through optical scanners. The other 15% of the votes were cast on electronic voting machines.

These methods of vote rigging are set forth in relentless detail in my book "Witness to a Crime: A Citizens' Audit of an American Election," which comes with a CD containing 1200 photographs of altered ballots and other forensic evidence from Ohio. But this is no reason to abandon paper ballots. To the contrary, it is the very reason to keep them. The existence of paper ballots is the very reason why we were able to prove that the 2004 Ohio election was fraudulent. Electronic voting machines were rigged as well, in Youngstown, Columbus, and Auglaize County, but in the absence of paper ballots, we have only eyewitness accounts and precinct canvass records to tell the tale.

The most important aspect of our proposed solution is that the votes be counted at the polling place. The minute the ballots leave the polling place, chain of custody questions arise, and the opportunity exists for ballot alteration, ballot substitution, ballot box stuffing, and ballot destruction, all of which we have documented in Ohio.

Crime scene investigators, in addition to collecting forensic evidence, look for three things: motive, means, and opportunity. There will always be a motive to rig an election and win the count. There will always be a means whatever method of voting is used. Our only hope is to stop the opportunity. Breaks in the chain of custody are what provide the opportunity whether at the factory, or at the polls, or during transportation of the ballots, or after the ballots arrive at a central location.

I still prefer hand-counted paper ballots, but only if they are counted in full public view at the polling place on Election Night. I simply will not defend the use of paper ballots if they are transported to another location before they are counted. I would much rather have lever machines counted at the polling place than any system, paper or paperless, counted elsewhere.

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Lever machines are mechanical devices. The voter pulls a lever, which turns a gear, which adds one vote to the candidate's total, much like the odometer on a car. The lever makes a sound which verifies that the vote has been recorded.

With lever machines, three oversight methods are always necessary to protect the integrity of the vote count. Election observers need to see: (1) before the polls open, that the counts for all candidates and ballot propositions begin at zero, and that all the levers are functioning properly; (2) throughout the day, that the total count matches the number of voter signatures in the book; and (3) at the end of the day, that the machine counts are observed and recorded at the polling place, in full public view. Honest elections officials will be doing these things anyway. It is our job, as vigilant citizens, to be sure that they do.

New York State, by law, does not allow post-election recounts. Rather, New York allows a "recanvass," that is, a comparison of the counts that were transcribed in full public view from the lever machines at each polling place on Election Night with the numbers tallied and aggregated at the county level, to be sure that all the vote totals were transcribed correctly. As explained by attorney Andi Novick:

"Since 1896, the Election Law has required contemporaneously created record evidence of the count or of fraud. A verified, completed count, publicly recorded and announced at each poll site on election night, before the aggregate of the total votes is known, is still mandated." It is "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."

For the same reason, in the case of hand-counted paper ballots, I distrust the idea of recounts at a central location utilizing an optical scanner, allegedly as a "check" on the original hand count at the polling place. If a discrepancy arises, which count carries the day? How do we know that ballot tampering did not occur after the ballots left the polling place and before they were run through the optical scanner?

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In New York State, lever machines have a "full face ballot." Every candidate for every office, and every ballot proposition, is visible all at once. The offices are lined up in columns, and the political parties are lined up in rows, the order of which is determined by the order in which the parties' candidates finished in the preceding gubernatorial election. While this does help to perpetuate the dominance of the two major political parties, it standardizes the ballot layout all across the state. Any error in the ballot layout will be noticed, and the vote tallies will be assigned accordingly. The levers are right next to the names of the candidates. The voter is unlikely to pull the wrong lever by mistake. Nor can votes be switched from one candidate to another, as this would be as difficult as jimmying a mechanical typewriter to type the wrong letter. Nor can votes be shifted by sending the voter to the wrong machine, because the ballot layout will be the same on every lever machine in the district. Even the blind can vote on lever machines, by feel, finding the right columns and rows by counting the number of levers.

"Overvotes" (two or more choices for the same office) are impossible, because the lever machines do not allow it. The voter cannot pull two or more levers for the same office (unless you are supposed to vote for two candidates, as for a local board). I know. I have tried it. Electronic voting machines, which also do not allow overvotes, are nothing new on this point.

"Undervotes" (no choice for the office) are allowed, whether deliberately or inadvertently. The lever machine gives no warning that the voter has overlooked an office. There is a simple remedy for this. One more row could be added to the bottom of the full face ballot, reading "None of the Above" for each office, and the machines could be set up to require the voter to pull one lever in each column before pulling the big lever that opens the curtain and causes the votes to be cast. This would constitute an additional check on the accuracy of the vote count, because the total votes counted in each column should be equal, and it would be immediately apparent if one of the gears was not functioning properly.

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Richard Hayes Phillips has been an observer of election statistics for 46 years. He has a doctorate in geomorphology from the University of Oregon, also holds degrees in politics, geography and history, and is a former college professor. When not (more...)

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