Teresa Hommel, Feb. 15, 2009, Updated April 29, 2009




Why Keep the Lever Voting Machines?



New York should keep its mechanical lever voting machines, rather than switching to PBOS (voter-marked Paper Ballots and precinct-based Optical Scanners).


For nearly six years we have worked against improper use of computers in elections. We have worked for PBOS in order to keep electronic voting machines (DREs) out of New York. We have said, "IF WE HAVE TO REPLACE OUR LEVER VOTING MACHINES, we should choose PBOS." At this time it appears that no DREs are likely to be certified or purchased in New York. It is very late in the process to say, "Stop! Let's not computerize at all!" But that is what we are saying.


The reasons for keeping our lever machines are as follow, and each of these issues is discussed separately below.


1. Lever machines are more secure.


2. Lever machines are easier to manage, and less expensive to maintain and use than any other voting technology.


3. The higher cost of computerized elections will force elections to compete against other essential services for money that we don't have.


4. Voter-marked paper ballots can easily be kept secure after the close of polls by being in public view and continuously observed--but this requires us to recruit large numbers of election observers to watch them. We would also have to change state election law to require counties to change their procedures to enable this kind of continuous observation.


5. Proper audits of the optical scanners' computerized vote counting are needed to confirm that the computers operated properly. Such audits can take a long time (like the statewide recount in Minnesota recently) and can cost a lot. We would also need to change state law so that our audits provide statistical confidence, rather than being merely a spot-check.


The obstacles to keeping our lever machines are as follow. Each of these issues is discussed separately below.


1. Our State Board of Elections made an agreement in federal court with the U.S. Department of Justice to replace the lever machines, and this would have to be revised.


2. Our state election law requires the lever machines to be replaced when the State Board of Elections finishes testing the optical scanners and "certifies" them. This law would have to be revised.


3. Proposed federal legislation might require paper ballots and might not specify that this requirement is for computerized voting systems so that the computers can have a software-independent audit. Our Congressional Representatives and U.S. Senators would have to be educated to understand that computers and mechanical machines have different security requirements, and that it is inappropriate to apply computer standards to mechanical machines.




No computer is as secure as a mechanical lever voting machine. One reason is, simply, that mechanical machines have to be tampered one at a time, which can take up to 5 hours per machine. Another reason is that any technician can look inside the machine and see the tampering, or run simple mechanical tests and detect it.


If the master copy of programming for optical scanners is corrupt, every system would be loaded with it in the normal course of election setup and no one would visually see the problem. In contrast, lever machines work by the use of metal rods and gears, and as each machine is separately set up by the bipartisan pair of technicians, they can easily visually see any errors in the setup as they install it.


Once the programming of computerized voting equipment such as optical scanners is set up, it can be changed in a few seconds by replacing a tiny flash memory stick or a memory card the size of a postage stamp. In contrast, once the metal rods and gears of a lever machine are set up for an election, they can't be changed quickly.


Lever machines are not immune to tampering or breakage, but such problems would ordinarily show up in pre-election Logic & Accuracy testing, and could be fixed. Between L&A testing and election day, a technician would need hours alone with each machine to tamper with it. In contrast, a computer with a corrupted memory stick or card could work one way during testing and a different way on election day.


New York may have a problem now because, statewide, some of our Boards of Elections may not have maintained their lever machines adequately in anticipation of replacing them, or perhaps to help hasten replacement by making the lever machines seem to be hopelessly old, broken and impossible to repair. Nevertheless, these machines were made to be easy to maintain, and can be brought to nearly-new condition.


A note about wireless communications: New York State bans wireless communications in our electronic voting systems. Some years ago a technical inspector could have looked inside a computer and seen the components for wireless communications if they were there. But in recent years the technology for wireless communication has been miniaturized and embedded in other components such as the motherboard. An inspector can no longer visually detect whether a computer contains wireless components. This will make it harder to ensure that our computerized voting equipment is secure and legal under New York State law.


Because of the ease of corrupting all the computerized equipment in a jurisdiction, post-election audits need to show that all machines worked 100% accurately. A single discrepancy can indicate a widespread problem. Also, a discrepancy of a single vote is serious. A Yale University study showed that if each machine in a jurisdiction switched an average of one vote per machine, the outcome of many races could be altered. www.wheresthepaper.org/ACM.pdf




Elections with computers cost more than elections with mechanical machines. We don't--and won't--have the money to convert to computerized equipment properly or use it properly.


The economic crisis in our cities, counties, states, and nation will not be "fixed" in the near future. The federal stimulus money our state will receive will tide us over for a year, and then we will face the same deficits again. Will we get a second stimulus? An annual stimulus? When the stimulus grants stop, community will be pitted against community. Essential service will be pitted against essential service.


Our nation's economy cannot be fixed by stimulus grants, bailouts, extending unemployment benefits, and giving food stamps to more people. Our jobs have been sent offshore for nearly 20 years now. Our nation has lost much of our manufacturing and our family farms. We don't have a healthy economic base. People can't pay taxes if they don't have incomes. People can't "buy things to keep the economy running" if they don't have jobs.


This is not the time to switch to more expensive elections. How will we pay for the required audits of our Optical Scanners? Will we lay off teachers? Municipal workers? Cops? Will we close fire houses? Hospitals? Senior centers? Parks? Libraries? Stop paving our streets? Cancel some affordable housing, or bus or subway lines?




Elections conducted with paper ballots require many observers as well as election procedures that facilitate continuous observation. The voted ballots and other election materials need to be publicly visible continuously, and observers need to watch them continuously, from the time voting stops until the election audits are completed and the winners are certified. This span of time can be several days, weeks, or months.


If there is a gap in public observation, it is hard or impossible to prove that tampering with the ballots did not occur, or to prevent suspicions.


A citywide election in New York City requires approximately 30,000 poll workers, and we cannot get enough people to do this work. Many fewer people volunteer to be election observers. Can our political parties recruit sufficient people to be post-election observers to watch the voted ballots and election materials?


Will our state lawmakers modify our election law to require our counties to allow citizens to observe? Will our counties modify their procedures, or design new procedures, to facilitate observers? How much will it cost to do this? Is anyone lobbying on this issue?




Elections that are run with computers are controlled by software, which cannot be observed, and therefore such elections need to be verified by software-INDEPENDENT audits. In practice this means hand-to-eye counting of the votes on the voter-marked paper ballots to confirm that the hand-to-eye tallies are the same as the software-controlled computer tallies.


New York law now requires a 3% "audit" which amounts to a spot-check. 3% is inadequate to achieve "statistical confidence."


Will our state lawmakers work with specialists in election auditing to provide us with better audit requirements? Is anyone lobbying on this issue?


Lever voting machines cost less, require fewer observers, and don't use software


Our counties don't have to spend one extra dollar to use lever machines, because we already have them. And lever machine technicians earn very little in comparison to computer technicians.


Lever voting machines are rarely tampered with because it takes too much time to do it. For this reason these machines do not require a group of observers to sit and watch them continuously.


Lever voting machines don't use software, so software-independent audits are not needed.


What needs to happen so we can keep our lever machines?


U.S. Dept. of Justice and Federal Court


The U.S. Department of Justice sued New York State because we had not complied with the federal requirement to have accessible voting equipment in each poll site to assist voters with disabilities.


New York agreed to replace our lever machines, but the question of whether this was required by federal law was not addressed. If enough New Yorkers demand it, our state could be pushed to try to negotiate a new settlement with the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the Federal Court.


The money that New York State accepted for replacement of the lever machines would have to be returned to the federal government. The money we accepted and spent for acquisition of accessible machines would not have to be returned.


New York State Election Law


Our state election law requires the lever machines to be replaced when the optical scanners are finished being tested and certified. This law would have to be changed. With sufficient popular demand, our state legislature could be pushed to change this law.


Suggested changes are:

1. Ban DREs to bring our law up to date with current knowledge of the failures of DREs.


2. Require the counties to keep their lever machines, and provide a modest authorization of funds to bring their lever machines up to nearly-new condition, since many counties have not been maintaining them fully in the last few years in expectation of replacing them.


Proposed Federal Law


Proposed federal legislation might require paper ballots and might not specify that this requirement is for computerized voting systems so that the computers can have a software-independent audit.


We would have to start now to educate and lobby our congressional representatives and U.S. senators to understand that computers and mechanical machines have different security requirements, and that it is inappropriate to apply computer standards to mechanical machines.


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