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Science Friday: Who Controls the Voting Machines?

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Science Friday Interviews William Biamonte, Democratic Commissioner of Elections for Nassau County, New York

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Host: Ira Flatow

Camera: Carl Flatow
Released on October 24, 2008
Recorded on September 12, 2008
15 minutes (9-part video series)

Today, Science Friday released a nine-part video interview of William T. Biamonte, Democratic Commissioner of Elections from Nassau County, New York on its Science Friday program. Biamonte details the problems with transitioning from machines that allowed for complete control by election officials to those completely controlled by private for-profit corporations with no accountability to the public. He discusses the constitutionality of laws and court rulings that require the use of machines that cannot be certified as accurate and reliable, and includes a cost analysis for taxpayers.

New York was the first state in the nation to adopt paper ballots. When rampant paper ballot fraud then ensued, New York was the first state in the nation to adopt lever technology – specifically to remove paper from the process. It is also the first state in the nation to resist the adoption of software driven voting systems.

Video 1. Who Controls Voting Machines?

What- the concern that we have during our first trial run is that come to the realization, you know, you always saw it as a concern, when you actually have to deal with it yourself as an election official is that while using this new technology, you are now relying on the machine company vendor to help you provide services to the public, which up until this election we didn't have to do. We were pretty self-sufficient here. We could, we could use our own levers, fix our own levers, replace broken parts, set our own ballots, print our own ballots, get the machines delivered through, uh, trucking contracts.

Now, on every issue in terms of the machines, the repair of the machines, the program of the machines, the parts for the machines, we have to rely on a private company, private corporation – for-profit corporation – that has no accountability to the public. They're not appointed; they're not elected. They're a private company. If they, uh, when we're...

At the full plan implementation – Plan A – we were doing a full rollout; levers are gone and these are the machines, and we're relying on them, if for some reason they pull out their support, the election, the election voting system in the State of New York is dead in the water until someone can come up with a solution. That's a horrible place for, uh, democracy to be in – to be relying on private corporations for that.

Video 2. 800,000 Voters

Nassau County is a huge county. It's a major suburban county on Long Island and it's the place where suburbia was born. In New York State, we're the largest voting county outside of the City of New York. We have basically 880,000 registered voters. In some... Nassau County probably has more voters than some states do. Sarah Palin's entire state has 600,000 registered, uh, voters in the entire state, so we have more than the entire State of Alaska in one county.

Lever voting has been consistently used here successfully for the last fifty-sixty years with minor if no, no controversies whatsoever. You have the lever machines which are pried, uh, tried and true machines that, you know, we know work, that we know are trustworthy. We know are reliable. We know that we can use them ourselves without any help from anybody else.

While the Republican Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in response to Bush's election which was, you know, controversial – it had to be decided by the Supreme Court. And, one of the things that the Help America Vote Act did was to call for the ceasing of use of lever, lever voting in parts of the country. [sic*] So, other countr-, other states have moved on and implemented electronic voting and a lot of these states have also crashed and burned. Well, Congress reacted to the fact that they had an election and they had a presidency that legitimacy was questioned, so they passed what was seen as a sweeping vote reform, voting reform legislation that would create unanim- uniformity and standards.

One of the things that happened in Florida in 2000 was they had different machines and different standards in each of the counties. So, it was hard to implement a real recount and that just created more and more confusion. Their, their attempt was I think just to put a band-aid and show that they did something, so people wouldn't be as angry as they were, um, what they felt was an election that was, you know, in question.

Video 3. Two Implementation Plans

In 2006, the Justice Department sued the State of New York for noncompliance with the Help America Vote Act. New York was No.- New York was and is No. 50 in compliance in the country. That's a bad thing, but it's also a good thing, too, because as other states have had horror stories with their voting machines and had to actually replace their entire voting systems, like as occurred in Florida and California, New York State has stood on the sidelines and watched that and hopefully learned something from it. The pace of their moving to implement, I think they've made a lot of mistakes but the degree that we haven't moved as fast and implemented two years ago, um, may have been a benefit to us.

The first phase of this consent decree is known as Plan B. Plan B requires one handicap-accessible ballot marking device to be placed in every polling location within the State of New York. And in my county, Nassau County, we have 400 locations. We have 1100 and change election districts. Part of Plan B is that that machine will be there to assist the handicapped voter, while the rest of the voting population will continue to vote on the lever machines.

Plan A, which is also known as full implementation, requires the levers no longer be used by September of '07 – I'm sorry; I'm sorry - September of '09 and that they be replaced by optical scan machines. Where we are at right now is that these machines haven't been able to be certified on the federal or state level. New York State has very stringent certification standards and so far the vendors and the machines haven't been able to meet those standards.

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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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