Teresa Hommel


Chairwoman, Task Force on Election Integrity, Community Church of New York


Statement before the Committee on Governmental Operations on

“Improving Democracy and the Ability of Citizens to Participate in the Electoral Process”


February 14, 2008


1. Accurate Recording and Reporting of Problems


“Voters Say Diebold E-Pollbooks Crashed During Primary; Official Says They Didn't” is an article by Kim Zetter, a reliable, veteran reporter of election news on Wired.com. Only two days ago, February 12, 2008, she filed this report which includes links to recordings of election-day trouble calls from Georgia voters to their local hotline, as well as a video showing people standing on line waiting to vote (the line is huge, and a lady in the middle says she has been waiting for an hour already). http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/02/diebold-e-pollb.html


Meanwhile election officials in that county reported that there were no problems, or only insignificant problems!


This committee has been witness to such disparities between people’s experience and the official response. For example when Council Member Inez Dickens questioned the Board about broken machines in her district at a previous hearing, she was told in one instance, “We only replaced 8 machines in that election.” The answer implied that only 8 machines were broken, but in fact stated that whatever the number of broken machines was, only 8 were replaced.


This kind of official denial of people’s common experience discourages people from participating.


a.       For the most part I believe that our Board of Elections does an excellent job, but citizens can be invited by City Council Members to observe at poll sites, and the City Council can provide training in how to properly record and report problems.


b.      Council Members can also speak at organizations in their districts to recruit poll workers and observers with sufficient computer literacy to not be intimidated by computerized election equipment.


2. Resolution 228-A of 2006


As we move ahead to the use of electronic equipment, our challenges will be to


a.       minimize reliance on computer technology in our elections,

b.      take proper precautions before elections to ensure that the equipment works,

c.       train candidates and their representatives to meaningfully examine the equipment before elections,

d.      document machine failures that occur during elections, and

e.       meaningfully inspect the equipment after elections.


Computer failures have been, and continue to be, common in other jurisdictions, and they discourage people from participating.


Resolution 228-A of 2006, passed by unanimous vote by the City Council on August 16, 2006, gave our Board of Elections good advice:


a.  Our Board of Elections should avoid reliance on vendors by training Board staff to:

(i)                  independently perform all tasks to prepare our future electronic machines for elections, including ballot programming,

(ii)                recruit poll workers who are not intimidated by computers, and

(iii)               fully train election inspectors to set up the machines at their poll sites, assist voters, and perform post-election tasks to canvass the votes.


b. Invite candidates and their representatives observe the procedures used when Board of Elections staff evaluates each unit of equipment to confirm that, as delivered, it is correctly configured (consists of the same components as the system of that type that was certified by our State Board of Elections including hardware, programming, files, file system structures, and accessories, and does not contain illegal components such as wireless communications hardware or software).


c.  Provide training for candidates and their representatives so they know how to examine our future electronic voting systems to verify that the machines are correctly configured, contain the right components, don't contain illegal communication components, and have correct ballot programming.


d.  Invite candidates and their representatives to observe the testing of our future electronic voting systems when Board staff enters test ballots by the same methods that voters will use, including the use of all accessibility attachments, minority language displays, DRE voter verified printouts if we get DREs, and extraction of end-of-day results.


3. Public Information


Here in New York, the vast majority of citizens and potential voters have no clue what is going on with our future election equipment. Will we use our mechanical lever voting machines in our upcoming September primary and November presidential election? Or something else? And if so what?


Democracy requires an informed, involved citizenry, but it is very hard to get understandable and accurate information from the press and main stream media.


New York City Council Members, Community Boards, Borough Presidents, and State Senate and Assembly Members could help. Each official could conduct at least one information session in their district to disseminate information about the changes about to take place in our city.


The Governmental Operations Committee could prepare a report for all Council Members with this kind of information. This could be incredibly useful because accurate information is hard to get. For example, since the passage of the Help America Vote Act, America has been deluged with inaccurate information about what this law says. In plain language it does not ban mechanical lever voting machines. New York state could avoid the entire debacle of electronic voting equipment by keeping our lever voting machines and supplementing them with one or more accessible ballot marking devices in each poll site. Yet elected officials and news reporters repeatedly tell everyone that HAVA requires electronic voting equipment.


The Board of Elections in the City of New York could help in several ways.


  1. Maintain a list of email addresses of interested citizens, and send out notices directly to people when notices are posted on the Board’s web site. The minutes of commissioners meetings could be sent out weekly after they are approved.
  2. It is my experience that often notices are posted at the last minute. This may reflect the Board’s last minute confirmation of details, but it makes it difficult for people to attend events.
  3. Commissioners public meetings are held during the day when most working people cannot attend. Meetings at 6 PM would enable working people to attend after work.


Every citizen who wants to know what could happen in the future in New York should subscribe to the Daily Voting News from jgideon@votersunite.org. This one-page daily email is a collection of headlines from around the country (and links to the original reports). We should keep informed about what is happening elsewhere when older, low-tech and no-tech, easily understood election equipment and procedures are replaced by computers? Whatever happens elsewhere could happen here. Why not be prepared?


4. “We Wanna Watch”


The slogan is a new bumper sticker created by election integrity activists. We need to encourage citizens to be election observers. How observers are recruited, trained, organized, credentialed, and debriefed needs to be more widely publicized.

Some citizens say they won’t participate because their votes won’t count. Why not invite the public to watch the ballots once cast, and the chain of custody, and the counting? It is my understanding that at the present, in New York City, the chain of custody is concealed once the police take possession of election documents at the end of the election day. Anything that impairs people’s ability to watch the chain of custody of election materials, including ballots cast on election day, creates unnecessary questions and suspicion.


Not everyone believes in, or values, democracy -- defined as government of, by, and for the people. According to the main stream media, some Americans prefer convenience, even if that means shutting ordinary people out of our proper role in the oversight of elections. Even if it means relying on a handful of experts, computer technologists and statisticians, to tell us that everything is OK and not to worry our little heads.


But I don’t believe that people value convenience over democracy. And I challenge the City Council to avoid the narrow focus of “Get out the Vote” and “make the process more convenient.” Unnecessary inconvenience should be avoided, of course, but also our entire election process needs to be open to public scrutiny and people need to be strongly encouraged to participate by observing.


5. Changes needed in state election law.


Someone needs to go through the New York State Election Law to determine what provisions need to be changed to deal realistically with the computerization of our voting technology. Why not this committee? Why not the City Council legal services?


Regardless of whether we get DREs or optical scanners to replace our lever voting machines, computers are vastly different from mechanical voting machines. Changes in procedures and laws will be needed to ensure proper and secure (1) programming of the ballots, (2) collection of the tallies at the end of the election day, and (3) tabulation of the tallies from all the machines.


Our New York City Board of Elections should continue using its present system for tallying votes, because the tallying software from vendors is said to be insecure and faulty.


6. Future Costs Need to be Estimated


To the best of my knowledge, no one has yet prepared an analysis of the acquisition, transition, and continuing costs for the ballot marking devices selected for 2008. Nor for the equipment that might be under consideration for 2009.


I urge the Governmental Operations Committee to ask our Board of Elections to prepare and publish such estimates.


7. Oppose computerization and centralization of elections


Innovations such as electronic poll books and computerized centralization of voter registration have been sold to the public on the basis of their “convenience.”


Yet, the more centralized our election administration is, the easier centralized tampering is, and the harder it becomes to rectify even innocent irregularities. The more centralized our election administration is, the harder it is for an individual voter to get mistakes corrected.


The more computerized our election administration becomes, the more citizens are shut out of understanding what’s going on and providing any citizen oversight.


Elections alone don't make democracy! Totalitarian and fascist governments have held lots of phony elections. The tipoffs are secret procedures, and citizens shut out of understanding, observing and participating. That’s the unavoidable side effect of computerization.


For this reason, every person who wants to live in a democracy should be opposing the use of computers in our elections.


Thank you.