Verified Voting Blog: My Vote on NY Voting Machine Certification

During the week of December 7, 2009, the New York State Citizen Election Modernization Advisory Committee met and reviewed certification test data results from the state’s testing program, and to vote on recommending approval of the two voting systems to the four Commissioners of the State Board of Election. The Commissioners will vote on final certification at their December 15, 2009 meeting. On December 10, 2009, the Advisory Committee approved recommendation by a vote of 10 For and 1 Against. I was the only vote opposing the recommendation. Below is the statement I made prior to the committee vote.

I believe in New York State’s certification process. It is rightfully called the best in the nation. We have required vendors to conform to a higher standard than ever before, we have conducted extensive testing with independent oversight, and as a result we have a huge trove of data upon which we can base our decision on whether these new voting systems are ready to be certified. Just the fact that we even have this substantial set of test results against a large number of very specific standards is a credit to New York’s process. Arguably, we have more data available to us about these systems than has ever been made available to a public body such this Advisory Committee before. It is because of this comprehensive approach that we can even be talking about some of the test findings, which never would have been revealed in a typical voting system certification program.

While New York’s certification process is excellent, and execution of it by State Board staff and NYSTEC has been superb, ultimately certification is about the vendors – how precisely have they met the requirements put forth in the New York specification, and to which they are contractually obligated to fulfill? Arguably, the two systems being considered in New York have been subjected to a more rigorous examination than any before, where every detail has been tested, reviewed, and retested under close observation not only by the test team but also by independent reviewers.

But the findings show that as of today, while the two voting systems have managed to meet most of the New York’s requirements, they have not yet met all of them, including some which to me, as a technologist, are important. I understand the feeling that these machines are ready to be approved, because indeed, they are so, very, very close to meeting all of the state requirements – only a handful of items remain unresolved. But as the only member of the Citizens Advisory Committee with a technical background, I believe that the citizens of New York State expect me to base my decision on technical considerations, not administrative or political ones. When I managed software projects, I’d often frustrate my engineers when I would refuse to release software which was oh-so-close to meeting the full requirements specification, but was not quite there yet. How often did I hear “But that’s not really an important requirement”, “We’ll never see that condition out in the field”, or “We can retrieve the data from the backup system, so what’s the difference?” But I would never budge. My job was to make sure that the specification was met, fully and completely. That is what my boss expected of me back then, and I believe that is what the voters of New York State expect of me today.

It seems to me that we can’t pick and choose which aspects of the law we wish to comply with, the law is the law. So to me, our criteria for recommendation are straightforward. We can’t make our recommendation based on personal preferences; we can only base our recommendation on the specific requirements of the law.

I’m sure many lawyers will have many discussions over the coming days and weeks about what legally constitutes conformance with New York’s Election laws and regulations. I am not a lawyer, I’m just a software engineer who’s been asked to evaluate compliance with a technical specification. And while I rely on my technical knowledge and experience to evaluate the data, I can only evaluate conformance with the law based on common sense. And common sense tells me that the law is NOT like a game of horseshoes, where close is good enough. It seems to me that complying with the law means complying with all of it, not just 90 percent of it, or 95, or even 99. Based on my evaluation of the data I conclude that no matter how far they’ve come and how close they now are, the voting systems under consideration have not yet met all of New York’s requirements. I will therefore vote No on recommending approval of these systems for certification.

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