Teresa Hommel



Committee on Governmental Operations, New York City Council

September 26, 2008


New York State law now bans the continued use of our mechanical lever voting machines. It is time for the New York City Council and the Board of Elections in the City of New York to advocate that our state legislature rescind the ban, and allow continued use of our old equipment.


1. Federal law allows continued use of lever machines. HAVA (the Help America Vote Act of 2002) requires one accessible voting device per poll site, which New York has now complied with. The belief that HAVA bans lever machines has been promoted by those who stand to make a lot of money from the sale of computerized replacements. However, a person merely needs to read HAVA to discover that there is no ban on lever machines.[1] There is no requirement for using computerized voting equipment. For example, attached to my testimony is an article from September 24, 2008, with photos, describing eight counties in Idaho that are still using punch card voting. We don’t see the U.S. Department of Justice suing them to make them start using computerized equipment.


2. New York State is the first state in the nation to competently test the new computerized equipment prior to state certification, purchase and use. The equipment is still failing its tests. I understand that the federal court is now pressuring our State Board of Elections to hurry up and certify the equipment anyway. This should be a tip-off that something is wrong and we should NOT hurry up.


3. Arguments against continued use of lever machines are false or irrelevant.


a. FALSE: No parts are available. Most parts in a lever machine are standard parts you can buy in a hardware store. The few parts that are not standard can be made in a machine shop.


b. FALSE: Everyone should vote on the same equipment. Federal law does not require everyone to use the same equipment. However, if too few people use the accessible BMDs, that could compromise the secrecy of the ballots cast by those who use them. We have been told for years that as many as 20% of voters have some form of disability that could limit their ability to cast a private and independent vote, and that these voters wish to vote at their local poll site where the majority of voters vote. If these voters use our BMDs that should solve the problem. We can also require our poll workers to encourage all voters to use the BMDs if they are not busy.


c. IRRELEVANT: The lever machines are old. This is the computer age. The important thing is to use the best tool for the job. Lever machines are one of the most reliable inventions of the last century, the easiest and least expensive voting machines to repair and maintain, the hardest to tamper with, and the most understandable to poll workers and voters. Computers are the least reliable, hardest to repair (which is why people just get a new one when they have trouble), the easiest voting equipment to tamper with, and the least understandable to everyone.


d. IRRELEVANT: New York would have to return the HAVA money we have received. This is a political issue, because “returning federal money” might “look bad” and would have to be explained to people who have not followed this issue.


But returning the money would be prudent, because the amount we received will never cover the cost of maintaining the new equipment, nor the cost of replacing it when it falls apart after our state-required 5-year warrantees run out. Given the current economic crisis in our country, we should not replace our cost-effective lever machines to get new equipment that we will not have the money to maintain and replace.


In addition, the secure use of computerized voting systems requires post-election audits. Our Boards of Elections are already working with insufficient funds, and the need for audits will require more personnel and effort than we currently need to recanvass the lever machines.


Historical Perspective


1. When touchscreen voting machines, called “DREs” were first introduced, the design of the machines allowed no way to confirm that they were functioning correctly. Jim Dickson, Vice President of the American Association of People with Disabilities, was the leading disability advocate for paperless electronic voting from 2001 until recently. When I asked in a public forum in June, 2003, how anyone would know if the machines were working or not, he stated, “I trust the computer.” All over our country election administrators were saying, “We trust the computer.” It was a talking-point.


But it was the wrong answer. The FBI computer crime survey of 2005 showed that 87% of computer installations had had “security incidents” in that one year alone. 64% of incidents resulted in the loss of money, which meant the incident was serious, not trivial. 44% of incidents resulted from insiders. There is no reason to expect our Boards of Elections to have a different set of statistics from the American average.


Touchscreen voting machines have been commonly compared to ATMs, but a google search for “ATM fraud” results in hundreds of thousands of listings.


Computer industry surveys have showed that 72% of computer projects never worked, but those were projects where the functioning of the systems was rigorously audited. Since touchscreens did not allow anyone to determine whether they were working or not, the likelihood of them working was zero.


2. “DREs with a voter-verified paper trail” was considered a solution to allow use of computers for voting, but to verify that they were working correctly. When I became an activist against electronic voting in June, 2003, I advocated the use of a paper trail so that the proper and accurate functioning of the DREs could be confirmed. But DREs with a paper trail is now recognized as a failed idea for three reasons.


a. Most voters lack the skill to be able to verify a paper trail.


b. Election administrators nationwide said that they lacked the will, mandate, funds, skills, personnel, and time after elections to perform computer audits to verify that their DREs with a paper trail had worked properly and accurately during elections.


c. Vendors have provided printers that are so shoddy that in jurisdictions where DREs are required to have paper-trail printers, the paper trail can not be used to verify the work of the DRE.


3. Optical scanners have a much higher success rate than DREs. For 3 years I advocated the use of voter-marked paper ballots and optical scanners. This Committee and the City Council know the many advantages of optical scanners over DREs. The fact that voters directly mark their paper ballot means that we have an authentic and accurate record of the voters’ intent. Yet in the last year, we have seen problems with the use of optical scanners. They are computers and subject to the same problems as all computers. Boards of Elections have to do an audit to prove that the scanner worked properly and that the ballot programming was correct, but most Boards of Elections don’t want to do an audit. You need citizen observers to watch the entire chain of custody of the paper ballots to prevent tampering, but most Boards of Elections don’t want to allow observation of the chain of custody.


There is a long history of fraud and tampering with paper ballots, which is a good thing. It shows that problems with paper ballots are detectable and preventable, unlike problems with invisible electronic ballots inside DREs. All we would need is continuous citizen observation of the entire chain of custody of the paper ballots, and the use of modern technology in the form of surveillance cameras and so on.


4. Computers should not be used in elections—keep the levers!


Given the vast superiority of optical scanners over DREs, and the many advantages of optical scanner voting systems, why am I now advocating keeping our mechanical lever voting machines, and asking you and the Board of Elections to do the same?


Optical scanners, as computers, are subject to the same ease of undetectable tampering as DREs. Computers are impossible to secure. The secure use of optical scanners depends on proper auditing after the election. Activists across our nation are working to devise auditing methods that will be the most accurate and least burdensome. But we are talking about elections here, and conducting elections is a lot of work. Auditing computers is one more task, and one more expense for our underfunded Board of Elections, even when the audit is relatively simple as it would be with voter-marked paper ballots and optical scanner systems.


City Council Resolution 228A of 2006 laid out requirements for public confidence in the use of computerized voting systems, and those requirements are a dirty secret. No one mentions them, especially our Board of Elections which opposed passage of the resolution. We know that there is no way our Board of Elections or candidates or the public can inspect computerized voting equipment and confirm that it consists of only legal components and that the ballot programming is correct. We can easily do this with lever machines. But computers are too complex, too hard to understand, and the insides are “proprietary secrets.”


Problems with optical scan systems that we are seeing across the nation are:


a.       Failure to allow citizens to observe the chain of custody of voted ballots

b.      Arrest of observers

c.      Failure to perform audits at all.

d.      Clueless election administrators who have no idea how their equipment works, and vendor technicians who say they don’t understand what went wrong, and public relations efforts that blame voters and poll workers for machine failures.

e.      Dependence on vendors to “fix” any problems (privatization of elections).

f.       “Lost” ballots and “lost” memory cartridges that are mysteriously found again while no one is watching.


New York should learn from the experience of other jurisdictions, and defend our use of the lever machines . Lever machines are:


a.       More reliable

b.      Completely understandable with a week of training

c.      Easy-to-manage

d.      Inexpensive

e.      Difficult and time-consuming to tamper with (“retail fraud”), so that they prevent the kind of “wholesale” fraud in which an entire county-wide or state-wide contest can be corrupted in seconds


Election commissioners whisper that they would prefer to keep the lever machines. Public officials say in private that they would prefer to keep the lever machines. We know that New York State will end up in court again if we try to keep the lever machines, because our federal government is intent on privatizing American elections.


But it is time we stood up and defended our current system because it works better than any computerized system ever can.


Thank you.




1. Some HAVA sections that refute the assertion that HAVA bans lever voting machines. (http://www.fec.gov/hava/law_ext.txt)


- Section 102(a)(3) says "a State receiving a payment under the program under this section shall ensure that all of the punch card voting systems or lever voting systems in the qualifying precincts within that State have been replaced in time for the regularly scheduled general election for Federal office to be held in November 2004." (Followed by the 2006 waiver paragraph). It DOES NOT say all states that have them must replace them, only those receiving payments.


- Section 102(d) provides for repayment of the funds if the punch card system or lever isn't replaced by the deadline. No other penalty.


- Section 101(b)(1)(H) - for example - provides funding (in the same language as 102 provides funding for lever replacement) for establishing a toll-free hotline that voters may use to report possible voting fraud and voting rights violations. But nobody EVER refers to this as a requirement.


- But more clear yet is Section 301(a)(1)(A) - the requirements section  says that "the voting system (including any lever voting system, optical scan, or DRE) shall ....."  If levers were banned after 2006, why would the requirements section specifically say that the requirements in effect as of 2006 applied to lever machines?