As noted in Part One, the US Department of Justice has filed a motion asking the US District Court to appoint a Special Master to oversee replacing all of New York States lever machines by the November 2008 election. In Part One I discussed how if the Court were to decide in favor of the DOJ and rule that New York State must replace all lever voting machines prior to the November 2008 Presidential election, that paper ballots and precinct based ballot scanners would be the only feasible way to do it. In this essay I’ll discuss why the DOJ’s request is not a good idea and could result in New York State being the next Florida.
A little history
Let’s remember how we got here – in response to the electoral chaos in Florida in 2000, Congress passed the Help America to Vote Act, or HAVA. HAVA has some laudable goals, among them full poll site accessibility for voters with disabilities. But for all its good intentions, HAVA has worked out to be a huge tax payer funded piggy bank for the three primary voting machine vendors – Sequoia, ES&S, and the company formerly known as Diebold.
The media’s extreme focus in 2000 on Florida’s punch card voting machines and chads pregnant and hanging resulted in Congress, forever reacting to the wrong problem, effectively banning punch card and lever voting machines. Never mind that the punch card machines themselves were not the problem – it was the layout of the notorious Palm Beach ‘butterfly ballot’, and improper maintenance of the equipment that caused difficulties. Never mind that improper purges of Florida’s voter registration rolls probably accounted for more lost votes than any voting machine. A careful Congressional analysis would have resulted in a far different law than the HAVA we got. The one we got simply threw billions of dollars to the states who quickly spent the funds on whatever faulty equipment the voting machine vendors were hawking. As we see now, many states who purchased expensive touch screen voting machines (DREs) have lived to regret that choice. Indeed, even Florida has now decided to abandon its multimillion dollar investment in DREs and return to a superior system – paper ballots, ballot markers and scanners.
So now, in order to fulfill HAVA’s goal of preventing chaos at the polls, the DOJ wants New York to take a step that could result in, you guessed it, chaos at the polls.
An IT analogy
A complete replacement of New York’s over 19,000 lever machines with a new technology has much in common with a large IT (Information Technology) rollout of a new computer system in a large corporation. If we look at the way businesses introduce new technology, we see that the DOJ’s plan for New York State invites disaster. Any significant introduction of new technology requires several distinct phases - Planning, Analysis, Design, Construction, Testing, Rollout. In particular, correct execution of the two last steps, Testing and Rollout, makes the difference between success and failure.
The new system must be tested and tested and tested. A small initial test by a limited set of users called the Alpha test will reveal problems both in the system itself and usability issues for users. When these problems are fixed a larger test phase begins, the Beta Test. Hundreds of users will take part in Beta Test which is designed to see how the system performs under conditions similar to the real world environment it will be operating in. The Beta test will also turn up many issues and problems which have to be addressed. Finally, prior to introducing the new system to the entire company a phased rollout, or pilot project, will be introduced. This protects from the dangers of a breakdown of the system by introducing the new system first to a small subset of users, and gradually expanding the rollout until the entire business has switched over.
The DOJ, by demanding that New York State completely replace all lever machines by the 2008 election, is in terms of IT project management, effectively telling the state to do the exact opposite of what best practices teaches us is necessary. Even worse, the DOJ plan essentially calls for no testing or rollout phases – in essence, the very first use of a the voting system would be the Presidential Election of 2008 – an Alpha test with New York’s poll workers and voters as guinea pigs. As any seasoned IT project manager will tell you, this is a recipe for disaster. To rush eyes wide open into a predictable disaster in the important 2008 election with New York’s 31 electoral votes at stake is madness.
Accessibility in 2008, Scanners in 2009
There’s an easy answer to this, and one that fulfills the goals of HAVA without causing the electoral chaos it promised to avoid. First, there are two assumptions we must make – 1), that all polling places in New York State must be accessible to voters with disabilities in November 2008, and 2), that DREs, a technology that has failed and is being abandoned in other states, are not an option.
Here’s the plan. New York must place one ballot marking device (demonstrated to be compatible with precinct based ballot scanners) in each polling place in 2008. Then, by the September 2009 primary, the lever machines are removed, and each polling place must have paper ballots for voters to mark and a ballot scanner to count them. This plan eliminates consideration of failed DRE technology, gives New York State sufficient time to conduct certification testing to ensure the State’s high standards are met, provides voters with disabilities the access they deserve, gives poll workers and voters time to adjust to the new voting system, and eliminates the dangers of conducting a high turnout, high stakes election with untested equipment being used for the first time.