Testimony on the voting machine pilot I gave at the New York State Senate Election Committee’s hearing on November 30, 2009. Full submitted testimony is posted here.
New York State was wise to do a pilot of our new voting systems. It provides an opportunity to work out the kinks in new systems and the procedures for managing them, allows us to learn from the inevitable mistakes, and to apply what we learn in the future. In my opinion, New York’s just concluded pilot was extremely valuable and revealed some important areas that need improvement. Certainly, privacy and ballot design issues often came up. However, given my limited speaking time I will submit comments on those two issues with my written testimony. Today I will discuss another pilot experience from which important lessons can be learned – the failure of some of the new voting machines and how New York can benefit from this failure.
Questions Raised in NY-23 Congressional Race
The NY-23 Congressional race had national attention, with 9 of 47 pilot counties holding elections in this race. Despite assurances from vendors, some of the new machines were inoperable on Election Day. In cases where machines failed, paper ballots were treated according to New York State emergency ballot rules, assuring that all votes were counted. Indeed, this is the great strength of New York’s new voting system – it ultimately relies on the marked paper ballot which contains a software independent record of voter intent.
I do not agree with those who claim “impossible” results – there is simply not enough data available from pilot districts to justify such sweeping claims. But all of New York’s voters have a stake in knowing what happened, so why not take a full look? After all, wasn’t that exactly the point of the pilot program – to take a detailed look at what happened, from soup to nuts, in full view of the public?
We know what went wrong – a bug caused some machines to hang on certain vote combinations in multiple candidate elections. As a retired software engineer, I seriously question vendors’ in-house testing, which absolutely should have turned up a simple defect like this. It also indicates that the state’s certification testing has some big holes, something which the State Board needs to be looking at very closely.
The good news is that New York’s required pre-election testing was robust enough to discover the mistake, but recovery procedures failed to identify all machines that needed a corrective patch. And the fact that some counties found the problem in pre-election testing while others did not indicates that not all counties performed adequate testing. The explanation given by the State Board is reasonable and I have no reason to doubt it, but a much fuller accounting of the events surrounding the machine failures is in order and would silence critics.
Given that the pilot revealed a serious equipment failure, the State Board of Elections should release a complete and detailed description of the events including: full details of each county’s pre-election testing; procedures used to identify problem machines; an analysis of why these procedures failed; the process used to develop, approve and apply a patch to machines; the county, state and vendor personnel involved in developing, approving, and applying the patch.
This was a pilot – it was inevitable there were going to be flaws. But the whole point of conducting it was to make sure that problems are identified and corrected. If we’re serious that the purpose of the pilot was to find flaws in equipment and gaps in procedures prior to a state wide roll out, then we can only do so with a full collection of data, analysis of that data, and full publication of that data so that it can be independently reviewed by the public.
I ask the Senate Elections Committee to task the State Board of Elections with providing a full analysis of the entire pilot program and the performance of the new systems, and provide a complete set of data from all pilot Election Districts to the public for independent analysis. In order to perform a meaningful analysis, the State Board should provide the public with the following data from all participating pilot districts:
- The number of voters signed in to each Election District poll book.
- The number of ballots distributed to voters at each poll site.
- The number of absentee ballots counted at each poll site.
- The number of absentee ballots counted at the County Boards.
- The number of emergency ballots counted at each poll site.
- The number of emergency ballots counted at the County Boards.
- For each machine in each Election District:
- Totals from tally tapes for all races.
- Public counter numbers before election open and after election close.
- Viewable images of tally tapes.
- For all races, from each Election District:
- Election night totals initially reported from polling places to County Boards.
- Election night totals reported by Election Management System after import from poll site memory cards.
- Certified election totals.
- Results of required 3% audit.
New York State has worked hard to make the process of using the new HAVA compliant voting systems the most rigorous in the nation. As part of that rigor, the pilot program was meant to be a test run to help us learn from mistakes. Now the State Board of Elections is at a critical juncture – New Yorkers want and need to know the full details of the pilot. What went right, what went wrong, what are we going to do better next time?