Sunday, January 17, 2010

Democracy's Gold Standard

Are We There Yet?

Nationwide, statewide and here at home in Schoharie County we've muddled through several years of election integrity advocacy, debate and discussion.

Early on the discussion was framed as what kind of equipment would replace the lever machines. Legislators, election officials and of course, equipment manufacturers, shared a predeliction for machinery. Human factors engineering, systems dynamics, questions such as will people be able to use the machines and can the results be trusted, only entered the debate after citizen activists made their voices heard.

This year the officially sanctioned system, Paper Ballot Optical Scan (PBOS), will be deployed throughout the state. Advocacy groups of all sorts still have criticisms, suggestions, demands and other significant unmet desires.

There are folks threatening litigation to prevent deployment of the scanners. They distrust electronic vote counting and want to keep the lever machines. There are math wizards who claim the present law doesn't do audits right. They claim to have better formulas which would adjust audits to assure discovery of election tampering. The democracy protectors and anticorporatists say we have to keep the big money interests out of our elections.

And there are some of us who advocate for a simple and logical compromise that could satisfy almost everyone. That process is the one which has been described as Democracy's Gold Standard* by several prominent election integrity advocates.

The process; paper ballots, 100% hand-counted, at the polling place immediately following closing of the polls, and the ballot tally posted at the polling place for citizens to compare to official results.

The Peacemakers Voting Integrity Project has been advocating just this process for the past few years**. In as much as the optical scanners have been bought and paid for, and will be fully deployed this year, we are presented with an opportunity to do the Gold Standard one better. Hand count the paper ballots and post the results as suggested. Then use the scanner count as an automatic, contemporaneous electronic audit of the hand count

Some of the NY counties which participated in the PBOS pilot project this past November, including Schoharie County, did just that. Recently, one of our own Election Commissioners acknowledged that hand counting paper ballots in our county's low population election districts would not be difficult.

So it seems we're almost there. Schoharie County could easily implement Democracy's Gold Standard ballot counting process this year and set a new record for transparency, citizen participation and election integrity. Let's do it!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Letter to Editor 29 November 2009

Letter to editor concerning voter turnout

To The Editor
The Times-Journal

Last week’s T-J editorial included notice of local election contests which were decided by slim margins and an invitation to those who didn’t vote this year to take part next November. The editorial emphasized how important one vote can be in deciding a contest.

I share the editor’s sentiments concerning voting responsibilities and do also encourage greater citizen participation in elections, however, such annual lamentations are not likely to improve matters much. More attention by local government, election administrators and the media will be needed to solve the low voter participation problem.

The Peacemakers Voting Integrity Project has been attempting to address these issues. Last year we requested to meet with the Election Commissioners to discuss the creation of a Citizen Advisory Board for Election Administration. We had hoped such an advisory board could be of assistance to both the Board of Elections and the Board of supervisors. The Commissioners refused to meet with us and the Supervisors did not carry the issue forward.

This past June The Voting Integrity Project released an analysis* of voter registration and voter turnout statistics for several upstate counties including Schoharie County. The numbers are troubling: One in four eligible Schoharie citizens is not registered to vote. Factor in low turnout percentages and contests or propositions can be decided by a minority of the citizens. As of this writing there has been no announcement of Board of Elections or Board of Supervisors action on this problem.

Members of the Voting Integrity Project were present at the Board of Supervisors meeting this month. Our purpose was to announce initiation of a survey of county Boards of Elections administration practices, resources and accessibility. We asked the Board of Supervisors to assure us that the Schoharie County Board of Elections will respond to the survey. We did not receive any such assurances from the Supervisors but remain hopeful the Election Commissioners will return the survey.

This small group of citizen volunteers is doing their part to make democracy work. We need government and the media to do their part if we are to succeed.

Wayne Stinson, Coordinator
The Voting Integrity Project

Analysis of Voter Registration Performance (
The Voting Integrity Project, 30 June 2009.

Voting Integrity Project Update

6 December 2009 report to The Peacemakers,

Wayne Stinson and Katherine Hawkins attended the Schoharie County Board of Supervisors meeting in November. Privilege of the floor had been requested via Summit Town Supervisor Harold Vroman, however, when the VIP presenters arrived they discovered no agenda notation to that effect. Fortunately, the BOS meeting included a continuation of the budget comment period so Wayne was able to address the board anyway.

We reminded the board of our earlier attempts to meet with the Election Commissioners (Nov. '08 - March '09) to propose establishment of a Citizen Advisory Board for Election Administration and the Commissioners' refusal to meet with us.

We reminded the board of our earlier research and analysis of voter registration and voter turnout statistics which revealed lower voter registration percentages in Schoharie County compared to five other demographically similar NY counties, and the disturbing fact that one in four eligible Schoharie County citizens is not registered to vote.

We notified the board of our most recent research effort, a survey of twelve county Boards of Elections (10 Nov. '09) which asks the ECs to report administration practices, department resources and accessibility data. We asked the Board of Supervisors to assure us that our Board of Elections would respond to the survey. We have received no such assurances and the Schoharie county Election Commissioners have so far not responded.

So far three counties have returned surveys. we will begin contacting those counties which have not yet returned the survey to remind them and to encourage participation. If personal contacts fail to gain cooperation the only remaining option would be Freedom of Information Law demands. No decision has been made as to this course.

Schoharie County BOE participated in the so-called pilot project use of the new voting equipment last month. The Sequoia-Dominion ImageCast machines were used in Schoharie Town election districts only. We have been told our BOE chose to do a 100% hand count of the paper ballots in those districts. If this is true they deserve credit for doing the right thing and something the state board didn't have the good sense or courage to require. We are not aware of any problems occurring with the new equipment in Schoharie Town pilot project.

Friday, November 6, 2009

VIP Survey of County BOE


The cover letter and survey instrument pasted here were mailed the second week of November.

This initial distribution to a small number of county BOEs is intended to be a trial application which we hope will help us further refine the instrument in preparation for a larger survey.


The cover letter:

The Voting Integrity Project
A public interest initiative of The Peacemakers of Schoharie County
P.O. Box 214, Cobleskill, NY 12043

10 November 2009

«Dem EC», «Commissioner»
«Rep EC», «Commissioner»
«City» «State + Zip»

Re: Local Boards of Elections Survey

Election Commissioners,

The Peacemakers of Schoharie County is an all volunteer non-partisan citizen organization dedicated to promoting peace and social justice which has been active for over twenty years. The Voting Integrity Project of the Peacemakers has worked for more trustworthy elections for the past four years and is most recognized for support of paper ballot voting and opposition to unauditable electronic voting machines.

The Voting Integrity Project is initiating this survey of a small number of County Boards of Elections to document administration practices, department resources and public accessibility. Your Board Of Elections has been selected for this survey because of your county’s population demographics.

This initial survey will be limited to several low population counties to test the serviceability of the survey instrument and to evaluate the potential for a more expansive inquiry in the future.

We hope you will not find our brief questionnaire too time consuming or intrusive. We have kept it short so as to not substantially interfere with your duties. A survey report will be provided to each of the participants as soon as it becomes available.

Please contact us with any questions you might have. We encourage you to provide commentary on the survey itself if you wish. Write us at: .

Thank you for your cooperation,

Wayne R. Stinson, Coordinator

The Survey

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Failure of Democracy?

It’s been all over the news of late, the blatant and massive election fraud during the recent Afghanistan elections. We are allowed to recognize it over there because…..well, it’s over there. So let’s talk about it. We are told that bringing democracy to the people of Afghanistan is one of our goals, priority unknown, of eight years of death and destruction we call Operation Enduring Freedom.

From our vantage point it’s quite easy to assign blame for this “democracy failure.” Some will observe that the Afghan culture is just not ready for democracy, or that three decades of occupations and civil war have caused the populace to become so cynical as to prevent ideals such as democracy from taking root. Poppycock! What we have here is a failure of leadership by American political actors, the ones that were so cynical as to claim to want to bring democracy to the Afghan people, and then enthusiastically used military force to make whatever they wanted to happen, happen.

You might sense that I doubt the U.S. motives in Afghanistan…of course I do. And you might wonder what all this has to do with election integrity here in Schoharie county. I’ll explain.

Several months back the Peacemakers Voting Integrity Project (VIP) sought to introduce the concept of a Citizens’ Advisory Board for Election Administration (
Challenge Provincial Power: The Test) to the County Board of Supervisors (BOS). Without going into too much detail I’ll simply report that we were rebuffed by both the Board of Supervisors Rules & Legislation Committee and the Election Commissioners. They simply refused to talk to us. Was it a distaste for the goals of such a board or was it dislike of individuals associated with the effort? We can’t be sure but there are clues we can follow.

One of the proposed activities of the CABEA was fact finding which could assist the Board of Elections (BOE). One specific action we suggested was research and activities to expand the number of registered voters. Lacking the cooperation of the BOS and the BOE we decided to go forward with a simple research effort which compared Schoharie County with five other counties of similar demographics (
Analysis of Voter Registration Performance). What we discovered was that Schoharie County had a smaller percentage of eligible citizens registered to vote than the other counties. Approximately one in four voting age Schoharie citizens is not registered.

The VIP report was published, and reported, and delivered to the BOS in June of this year. There has been no reaction from the BOS. There has been no reaction from the BOE. And, other than printing the press release we provided, there has been no attention from the press. Why?

The clues: On the occasion of our meeting with the R&L Committee to introduce the CABEA concept, one Supervisor responded to our proposal to expand the franchise to more Schoharie citizens by saying she thought “… we would be better off if they didn’t vote.” Apparently this legislator believes there is a segment of Schoharie County citizens who shouldn’t be encouraged to register and vote. On another occasion, a Supervisor from one of the largest towns in the county, responded with similar sentiments to a constituent’s query about the report.

The tally: Two County Supervisors who are either entirely clueless as to what democracy is or arrogant enough to dismiss it (and so indiscreet as to express their prejudice). Another handful of Supervisors lacking in courage or conviction to do the right thing. Two Election Commissioners dumb enough and arrogant enough that they believe they don’t need to attend to some of their responsibilities. A pair of Deputy Election Commissioners without sufficient autonomy or initiative to act. The remainder of the Board of Supervisors who lacked the initiative to spur action by a county department which is obviously failing in its mission. And a newspaper editor without the courage or initiative to act on a story with significance to the functioning of our democracy.

What do these actors have in common? They occupy leadership positions. They have responsibilities and they failed to fulfill those responsibilities. Is this a failure of democracy? I don’t think so! Democracy is fading for sure but as a concept, an ideal, it can not fail. It can be intentionally suppressed by those with elitist sentiments or allowed to suffocate through ignorance and inattention, but it can not fail.

The lesson:
Democracy requires leadership by the actors previously identified. For democracy to thrive requires leaders who are actually committed to democratic egalitarian ideals. Our job is to train the people we allow in power…...and to demand of them stronger support of these ideals. If we had such leaders we would not be killing Afghans and we would already have universal health care. With such leaders here in Schoharie County we might have even created a Citizen Advisory Board for Election Administration.

Oh yeah, about the Afghanistan elections: Mr. Karzi’s “win” in the past two Afghanistan elections is to Bush’s “win” in 2000 and 2004 here. In both cases local war lords screwed with the electorate, voting machines, polling places, ballots and ballot tallies to shape “democracy” the way they wanted it.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009


Sue Spivack Interrogates County BOE

July 3, 2009

Mr. Clifford C. Hay, Commissioner and
Mr. Lewis L. Wilson, Commissioner
Schoharie County Board of Elections
PO Box 99
Schoharie, NY 12157

Dear Mr. Hay and Mr. Wilson:

I was glad to receive your letter of May 21, 2009 a few days before I left Cobleskill for an extended trip. Having arrived home and reviewed my April 21 questions and studied your responses, I’m disappointed to find some of your answers incomplete and in one instance inaccurate and misleading.

Here are my comments:

General Questions about the County Board Administration:
Your statement of the Schoharie County BOE goals is helpful and useful to me as far as it goes. However the NY State BOE Mission Statement ( states in part “In addition to the regulatory and enforcement responsibilities the board is charged with the preservation of citizen confidence in the democratic process and enhancement in voter participation in elections (my emphasis).” It seems to me that every NYS County Board of Elections is therefore also charged with this mission—to enhance “voter participation in elections.” Please add this to your statement of goals and act accordingly.

Aside from listing your salaries, your statement that qualifications for Commissioners are set by the NYS Election Law is pretty much a non-answer. You give no real job description which would let me know such things as how many meetings with the NY State Board of Elections you must attend each year, how many education and/or training sessions you participate in as new means of voting and counting votes (voting machines, BMD, paper ballots—hand counting vs optical scan machines, etc, are being considered and purchased), how much time (per week/per month?) you spend in the County Board of Election office taking care of Schoharie County election business, and approximately how many days/hours a week/month you put in actually on the job. Please reanswer this question.

Questions about Election Statistics for 2004, 2006, 2008

You say you do not create statistical analyses of the voters. If you spent any time doing statistical studies of our county’s population and the numbers of voters, and sought to seriously compare our participation with NY State and the Nation, you would soon notice how many eligible voters there are compared to the number of registered voters—and realize these are two very different numbers (see comments below for more on this).

I am glad to learn that you file an Annual Report with the NYS Board of Elections. However in the interests of ease of citizen access, and open government and transparency, I ask that you please post these reports on the Board of Election website. Many people do not have the money to pay for printed copies. Every one has free access to the internet at the public libraries. I understand you possess only printed copies of these reports on hand—however they can be easily scanned into a pdf file and posted.

You state that “All eligible voters are registered voters.” and. “Traditionally, Schoharie County voter participation has been higher than either NYS or the US, as seen in the chart below.” Unfortunately your response in paragraph #3 equating eligible and registered voters is completely untrue, which makes the table in paragraph #4 entirely misleading. Eligible Voters are all US citizens 18 years and older who reside in Schoharie County. Registered Voters are those Eligible Voters who have filled out the voter registration form and been OK’d by the County Board of Elections as a Registered Voter.

In the column under Schoharie County, your table gives the percentage of Registered Voters who actually voted in those elections. In the columns under New York and US you are quoting percentages of Eligible Voters who actually voted. You are comparing apples and oranges. (See attached Sheet A with statistics from the US Census Bureau and other sources for more detailed information).

In 2007 Schoharie County had an estimated eligible voting population of 25,658 of whom 19,583 citizens were registered. We had an actual turnout of 14,558 voters which means while 74.3% of Registered Voters voted, only 56.7% of Eligible Voters actually voted. Note how close this 56.7% statistic is to the 2008 New York and US turnout. (see Sheet B-attached table with data sourced from the State BOE and/or the Census Bureau)

Therefore, if you look at the entire population of eligible voters, it is not true that Schoharie County voter participation is higher than either NYS or the US. This response conceals the need in Schoharie County to do much more voter education and voter registration outreach and to involve more eligible voters in the democratic process, in order to “enhance voter participation in elections.”

Re: your voter registration outreach efforts, I’m glad to know all that you are doing. However, since there is an obvious need to increase voter registration (see previous comments), I suggest that instead of waiting for any school or organization to request a presentation from you, that you energetically OFFER these programs to every high school government class in the County. I suggest that you call for citizen volunteers to help you do this kind of outreach to the following groups as well:

· Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of Schoharie County
· Community organizations such as Eagles, Elks, Rotary
· All Veteran’s groups, Business Groups and Libraries
· Voter Registration Tables outside Wal-Mart and Price Chopper and on the SUNY Cobleskill campus

Questions about the November 2009 Election

Please let me know what districts will participate in the OPSCAN Pilot Program. Will you be doing any public education in these districts to prepare voters to use the optical scan machines for the very first time? I believe you should.

I think a pilot project is usually a good thing. However as you have stated, the Op-Scan devices are not certified, therefore I urge you to make sure in every district where they are used that the paper ballots are hand counted and stand as the vote of record. This will provide an excellent and necessary test of the functioning of the Op-Scan machines. I advocate that this be done in OPSCAN Pilot Program districts state-wide.

Local BOE’s are not required to buy from state contract. Since privacy voting booths are not a tested and certified election device, you will not be told what to buy. By waiting for the State OGS to make a choice, I am concerned that more money than necessary will be spent to purchase privacy booths. Schoharie County is already experiencing financial difficulties. I urge you to research simple and inexpensive ways of assembling privacy booths out of tables which the county already owns and cardboard dividers. When you have decided what privacy booths you will be purchasing/assembling, please inform me of the costs.

I urge you to actively recruit poll workers in the same ways (perhaps at the same places and times) you seek to register new voters—by making presentations to high school government classes, to community organizations, at the County Fair, or other places where many local people congregate. There was/may still be some grant money available from the Federal government for recruitment of college students as inspectors. There has been state legislation to allow high school students over 17 years to participate as well. To involve young people in the election process should be a prime goal if we hope to attract young people to the polls.

Final comments

I am a person who values the right to vote, the need to maintain a vigorous and open electoral system, and a system of voting that is affordable, trustworthy and reliable. These are goals I would like to believe you share.. I am a member of the Voting Integrity Project and hoped that you would be open to discussing the formation of a Citizen’s Advisory Board to help accomplish the goals of increasing voter registration and voter participation in elections and self-governance.

To me our democracy is only as healthy and strong as its roots in local districts. When only a little over half the eligible voters turn out for major elections, and far less than half appear at the polls in off-years, I believe our democracy is in trouble. I am also deeply concerned that we are a County already struggling to make ends meet and facing all kinds of budget cuts. I believe that the costs in future years of maintaining and renewing machines and software, and paying corporate fees for Optical Scanners whose inner workings are proprietary secrets will drain County funds away from other important public needs.

I advocate for hand counting of all paper ballots when the time comes that the lever machines are finally abandoned, and even discarding the optical scan machines if they prove inaccurate and unreliable, and (as they already seem to be), prohibitively expensive.

I will continue to try to open a dialogue with you and the County Supervisors on these issues and topics. I believe that all of you in public service must hold in your hearts some of the same ideals as I do in this land of free speech and free people:

· that the more people who are involved in decision making, the more the will of all the people will be carried out,
· and the way we make sure our vote is fair and accurate in our local districts determines the fate of the whole nation.

There must be a way to create a government of the people, by the people and for the people, right here in Schoharie County. I look forward to your response to this letter.


Susan Spivack

SHEET A Statistics on Eligible, Registered and actual Voters

percent of eligible voters (citizen-age18+) registered 72.1%
percent of eligible voters (citizen-18+) voted 63.8%

New York State
percent of eligible voters (citizen-age18+) registered 67.5%
percent of eligible voters (citizen-18+) voted 60.2%

percent of eligible voters (citizen-age18+) registered 67.6%
percent of eligible voters (citizen-18+) voted 47.8%

New York State
percent of elegible voters (citizen-age18+) registered 56.6%
percent of eligible voters (citizen-18+) voted 37.6%

percent of eligible voters (age18+) registered 73.5%
percent of eligible voters (citizen-age18+) voted 62.3%

New York State
percent of eligible voters (18+) registered 91.3%

percent of eligible voters (citizen-age18+) voted 58.6%