New York Times - The City - Editorial

February 19, 2006


Bungling Voting Machines


New York could well be the very last state in the country to meet requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which provides millions of dollars to improve the way we cast our ballots.


That tardiness is an outrage, of course, one that could cost voters dearly in withdrawn federal funds. But Albany's delay would be easier to take if the State Board of Elections could figure out how to get the best and safest voting machines this extra federal money would buy.


Instead, the board has come up with standards that seem designed to serve the people who sell the machines rather than those who will have to use them. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton warns of a "train wreck" the first time they are used in a real election.


Nobody wants to slow down an excruciatingly slow process or cost the state any more federal money. But there is no excuse for using the last-minute scramble for federal funds to buy flawed machines.


Here are some of the most serious problems in these revised standards:


¶The public, and even its representatives, are excluded from the testing of machines (so much for transparency).


¶There is no requirement for the state to test the machines the way voters actually use them. The companies selling the machines say they can use automated test cartridges. But when California tested about 96 machines in a simulated election, with real people trying to "vote," it found that almost 20 percent of the machines failed. If you don't test the machines that way, the first real test of new equipment will be on Election Day.


¶There is no requirement for a "red team" test, in which a group of computer-savvy outsiders are hired to hack into the system. Maryland asked an outside firm to try to break into its computerized voting system and found plenty of holes. New York should certainly be able to afford to take such precautions for its 11 million voters.


¶Finally, the regulations allow the Board of Elections to "waive any test" of the voting machines altogether.


Let's recap. The board does not require many tests in the first place. Then it lets the industry test its own machines. And though it reserves the right to add tests, it can also waive tests by vendors. Whose interests does this serve?


New York's law concerning the purchasing of new machines wisely required a verified paper trail for voters. And the revised rules do appear to make it easier to buy optical scanning machines that provide paper backup and are simpler, cheaper and less prone to error.


The board also appears to have devised a short-term remedy for the state's non-compliance with federal regulations for disabled voters. It is considering the purchase of one machine per polling place —that's 10,000 machines — for the disabled. This seems a good solution, especially if paper marking systems already in use are chosen.


It might also give the board some breathing room from government pressure while it tries to do a better job of writing the crucial standards for purchasing voting machines, not for this year's election but for 2007.



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