Will your vote count?

By Edwin D. Reilly, Jr.
For The Sunday Gazette

            My campaigning days are over, for myself at least, but I continue to be fascinated by the arcana of the election process. One would think that after 215 years we'd have the process perfected, but oh, no. Let's begin with the wild west.

            Many Easterners think that California has just proved that it is the world's largest insane asylum. Not me, of course, that wouldn't be nice. Their recent travail stems from 1911 when the voters endorsed a constitutional amendment providing for recall of any officeholder in the state, from dogcatcher to Governor. So far, so good (although I happen to think that recall is the worst form of term limitation). But, not uncommonly, the amendment failed to state eligibility requirements for replacement candidates that inflate with time. To qualify, one needs only 65 signatures on a nominating petition and a filing fee of $3,500. Given population increases and the current equivalent of a 1991 dollar, the 2003 requirements should have been 1,000 signatures (still too small) and at least $50,000. The latter would certainly have reduced the ridiculous number of recall candidates far below 134, including the porn queen who ended up voting in a church.

            Another dangerous aspect of the California recall law is that the potential recallee is not permitted to be a candidate to replace himself. That means that though he may receive 49% of the recall vote, and hence be recalled, he might be replaced by a candidate who got only a 10% or so plurality among a hundred or more candidates. By a whisker, that didn't happen; Davis and Schwarzenegger each received about 3.6 million votes. But because the election was not perceived as close, the concerns that continued use of punch card voting systems in some California counties would lead to Floridation (not fluoridation) of the result proved unfounded.

            The relative reliability of various voting machines was much in the news leading up to the California circus. As recently as September 28, Gazette reporter Katy Moeller wrote an excellent summary of the issue. Optical scanners are considered most reliable, with punch card systems with their infamous hanging chad problem least reliable. The lever machines that we use in most counties in New York State are somewhere in between. Touch-screen machines whose votes are tabulated by internal computer programs can be reliable, but are only as trustworthy as those who write and install the programs. Let me write that program and I'll give you any result imaginable.

            Walden O'Dell, CEO of Diebold, Inc., which is vying to sell touch-screen voting machines in Ohio, recently caused an uproar when he told Republicans in a recent fund-raising letter that he is "committed to helping Ohio deliver its electoral votes to the president next year." Whether anyone has ever actually tampered with the programs in a Diebold machine is not known, but Georgia's 2002 election in which they were used is considered suspicious. Modern polls taken close to an election are amazingly accurate, but in this case popular Vietnam war hero and triple amputee Senator Max Cleland lost on election day even though the polls of the weekend before showed him leading comfortably, and the same thing happened to Governor Roy Barnes. Five other surprises elsewhere in the country on the same day all involved Diebold machines.

            By law, any company that wants to market a new model voting machine for use in this state must provide one for testing by experts hired by the state board of elections. Many years ago, while chairman of computer science at SUNYA, I and one other person were hired to analyze a new electronic machine. Our report warned that any machine whose operation depended on the execution of a stored program was susceptible to being hacked. I don't remember whether the particular machine under study was approved or not, and the issue lay dormant for decades.

            I happen to like our venerable lever machines. They have no fallible electronic memory, and no memory of any kind other than the counters that tally votes. And they contain no computer code. They are "programmed" by presetting, under the watchful eyes of representatives of both major parties, many tens of little hooks that prevent overvoting in any category, even ones in which we can vote for multiple candidates, some of whose names appear on multiple lines. Yet, one must not be able to vote for the same person twice.

Voters should know, but some apparently do not, that moving a lever down and then back up will not record a vote, and that no votes corresponding to depressed levers are tallied until the master lever is pulled  that opens the privacy curtain. Schenectady County Election Commissioner Bob Brehm tells me that our upstate lever machines will not let you pull that master lever unless you have voted for a proposition or for a candidate for at least one office. But in New York City, the Republican Party won a legal suit to require that such protection be disabled. In so many words, they argued that Democrats were dumber than Republicans and thus more likely to leave the booth without voting for anything or anyone.

            Perhaps there are upstate people who would like to be credited with having shown up to vote without actually voting. So how would such a person be able to escape from behind a mechanically irretractable curtain without conspicuously parting it manually or crawling out from under it? There is a way, and I'll award 1,000 chads to the first one who calls me with the correct answer.


Ed Reilly lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion section.

Postscript: No one won the chads. What one could do we be to open the panel that exposes a section of a paper roll on which a write-in vote may be cast. But one may then just pull the master lever without writing anything; the machine will "think" that you did.