Jim Robbins


Nov. 21, 2006

Hearing, Board of Elections in the City of New York



     My name is Jim Robbins.  I am a member of LWV, NYVV, and the Task Force on Election Integrity of the Community Church of NY.


    My testimony is based on my observations at the public demo last Wednesday at LGA Community College, and on avid study of the media coverage of experiences all over the US during the November 7 election just passed.


    Common sense should tell us that the more complex the technology, the more subject it is to malfunction, and experience has shown this to be true.  Vendors, with some justification, blame problems on poorly trained election officials, and on the fact that the average age of US poll workers is 72 - an age group that is the least prepared to deal with new technology.  Election officials, with some justification,  blame the problems on mysterious software and hardware failures.  No matter whose finger points to the guilty party, the election is still untrustworthy.  New York should learn from the mistakes of others and choose the simplest possible technology that is capable of doing the job.


    Of the systems offered, the paper ballot/optical scan technology is by far the simplest.  This technology is long established, unlike the complex DRE machines that are only a few steps removed from experimental prototypes hastily thrown together in the rush to take advantage of federal HAVA money.  As I listened to the vendors of DRE's last week, I marveled at all the bells and whistles they had thought to provide, and then realized that the more complex they were, the more things could go wrong.  And they do.  Yes, they look sexy, and yes, they look like the ATM machines we have learned to trust.  We know ATM's work when we look at our bank statements.  We cannot know whether or not DRE's work because we cannot see what goes on inside the black box that hides our votes.


     Optical scanners are routinely programmed by employees of local election officials, not by vendors.  This allows election officials to be in control, not vendors.  Paper ballots leave an irrefutable record of voter intent.  They provide the option to audit election results not just in the event of a challenge and recount, but even during an election, to make sure the optical scanner count matches the paper count.  The combination of paper ballots and optical scanners gives me a warm feeling of confidence that I will never have for DRE's


    Board members:  Ask yourselves how you will respond if you choose a technology that produces mysterious anomalies and chaotic election days, as DRE's have done.  How will you explain why you ignored the evidence?  It's a no-brainer.  Do the right thing and feel proud.


   Election officials in many other states have largely outsourced their responsibilities to vendors by paying them not just to provide hardware, but also to provide ongoing services.  Examples are writing software for each new election, trouble shooting machines on election day, writing last minute patches to correct programming mistakes, supervising the central tally of votes from each precinct, replacing paper tapes, fixing paper jams, and trying to keep the election going whenever something goes wrong, which if frequently does.  Election officials are largely incompetent to perform these functions because they are not computer professionals.  Many of these vendor activities take place outside the sight or control of election officials.


    New York should learn from these experiences and select the simplest possible technology that is capable of doing the job.