Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Indispensable Element: Paper Ballots

Paper Ballots are indeed a necessary component...

but not sufficient to produce trustworthy elections. Yes, we paper ballot advocates have been successful. This first major battle, hard fought over the past 4 years, is a win for the election integrity groups fighting against the direct recording electronic voting machines (DRE) in New York State.

The most recent, and hopefully the last, deadline for local election officials to report their choice for 2008 equipment purchases passed last week. All but one of the 62 New York State counties have selected ballot marking devices (BMD) compatible with paper ballots. And lawmakers in Hamilton County might still intercede to prevent their county from being the only DRE county in the state.

The BMDs will be deployed this year in partial compliance with the so-called Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The courts have dictated that New York must accomodate disabled voters at every polling place this year. Complete HAVA compliance is to be achieved in 2009 and the choices made this year indicate that paper ballots will be the final HAVA solution.

Paper ballots make fraud free elections POSSIBLE....... they certainly do not provide anything near a guarantee of same. Several prominent writers have argued that the current concerns about the voting machines are a distraction from the real problems. Those problems being various forms of voter misinformation, disenfranchisement and intimidation which have occurred over the years regardless of the machinery used. Suffice it to say there are many people, some of them serving as election officials, who are not committed to democracy and can not be trusted to protect the integrity of the vote.

Protecting the integrity of the vote is our job...and the job is far from done. Our efforts must now turn to the many other devices, conditions and actors which stand in the way of true democratic and honest elections. The conversation has already started concerning such things as effective audits, secure chain of custody procedures, reform of election administration, and greater transparency for the entire process. As activists we surely will continue our advocacy for better elections and press for the needed changes.

One of the most effective actions we can take requires no new laws or large expenditures of cash. What is needed is a commitment to democracy and a willingness to contribute to community. Citizens must become involved in our elections to a much greater degree than we have. As individuals we can volunteer to serve as Election Inspectors and Poll Watchers or work at get out the vote programs. As members of community service organizations we can urge the organizations to support such efforts.

It seems necessary to state the obvious: We can not complain about the lack of transparency if we're not there to see, and we can not contribute to improved administration if we are not there to discover how the job is done and what needs to change. For democracy and election integrity we have to be there.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

No Fat Lady Song Yet

So you thought we were at the finish line......Nope. Not yet.

23 January '08 and the election integrity advocates watching the goings on of the state Board of Elections in Saratoga were proud of Commissioner Doug Kellner as he tried to hold the board together to do their duty. He failed, the two Republican Commissioners refused to come to the table. They wanted their favored friend, Liberty Election Systems, to be approved and were holding the meeting up while various Albany politicians twisted arms and threatened kneecaps.

Before the Board even began their meeting it was announced that Republican Co-Executive Director Peter Kosinski had left the office and legal assistant Todd Valentine was to replace him. I have no info as to the reason for these personnel moves but the timing causes one to suspect a connection to the voting equipment struggle. We note the Republican side of the board has been championing Liberty from day one. (Another observer notes that Sequoia has also had political champions since early in the game. If so that might partially account for that vendor's success)

Many of us had to leave Saratoga that evening without knowing how the struggle would play out. The next morning we were gratified to hear that the Republicans had joined Kellner in approving three ballot marking systems, all compatible with paper ballots. The joy was short lived however.

Within hours of the vote rumors were heard that at least one of the rejected applicants was planning to litigate their exclusion. And then, on Monday, the authorization for two systems using the AutoMark BMD were recinded by vitue of a vote by the Republican Executive Director, leaving Sequoia the only system standing. Before the end of the week we knew that two vendors were in court attempting to compel the BOE to include their machines.

Should Liberty Election Systems prevail some local Election Commissioners would likely choose this DRE-jury-rigged-to-BMD, a very poor choice. The other litigant, Premier Election Solutions, will be arguing to be reinstated. They probably should be since the AutoMark BMD they feature has been in service in other states for several years and enjoys the acceptance of the disabled community.

The absurdity of this wretched drama is that the three machines initially approved have not been tested and are not certified by the state BOE. These systems are prototypes and are only available by virtue of the pressure applied by the Federal Court. The two systems using the AutoMark BMD (Premier and ES&S) at least have that unit's experience supporting their acceptance. The Sequoia ImageCast is a totally untested BMD mated with a scanner used in Canada.

Several counties have already announced their decision. Schoharie County Commissioners Cliff Hay (D) and Lew Wilson (R) are reported to have chosen the Sequoia within just a couple of days after the BOE met. That same news report quoted the contract total cost as $250,000.00 for eighteen Sequoia units. That's $13,888.00 each unit! A scary high number which seems to indicate the vendors are taking advantage of the federal court's pressure.

Part of the reason for the high price tag is that the vendors offer their equipment as a system comprised of a ballot marking device and a ballot scanner. I understand the Sequoia must be purchased this way while ES&S and Premier will sell the AutoMark BMD alone. Jurisdicitions choosing the AutoMark BMD only for this year are effectively keeping all their options open as to which scanner to select for 2009. This seems to be a sensible course of action.

We'll be revisiting this issue later this week after the courts hear vendor's arguments and render decisions. Oh yeah, the finish line is out there in the fall of 2009. We've got a lot of running and shouting to do before then.