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In Defense of Lever Voting Machines

By       Message Richard Hayes Phillips     Permalink
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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:

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"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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The only way to have "mechanically caused" undervotes, or to shift votes from one candidate to another, is to tamper with the gears or levers themselves. This would be readily apparent at the end of the day, at the polling place, where the votes are observed and recorded, because some viable candidate would end up with zero votes on that machine. There is no way to shift some of the votes without shifting all of the votes. These are levers and gears, not computer programs. Forensic evidence of the tampering would be left behind. Lever machines are mechanical devices. Tampering with a lever machine is like tampering with a car.

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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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