Overheated vote-counter automates election, places 60K votes itself

More than 60K votes thrown out by short-sighted election board because machine cast them

The voting machine that cast between 50,000 and 60,000 extra votes for New York gubernatorial candidates in November has a bug that causes it to misread some ballots and add additional votes to others when the machine itself overheats, according to a review by the state Board of Election.

All of the so-called "over-votes" were thrown out after election workers reported an unrealistic spike in the number of votes from the machine, from manufacturer Election Systems and Software (ES&S), which apparently overheated during the hour or so the polling location was closed for lunch.

In 2010 NYC's City Board of Elections decided to replace its old lever-driven voting machines, that required voters to flip a lever to register their choices with a newer model from ES&S. Rather than flipping a lever, voters fill in oval spaces on paper ballots, then scan the ballots into the voting machine to register their choices. The machine counts votes automatically; the stored paper ballots remain serve as the source for recounts or backups for lost votes.

The manufacturer has agreed to replace the one machine definitely affected; voting-rights advocates are asking for a broader investigation to satisfy concerns that the other 5,000 ES&S machines used by New York City voting districts may have overvoted less noticeably.

Only the machine from one South Bronx polling station has been confirmed to have developed a problem, but it is also the only machine to have been tested, according to Larry Norden, a deputy director at Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, which has been monitoring the machines for accuracy and sued the state electoral commission in 2010 demanding they be removed after the machine in the South Bronx began displaying confusing warning signs when an error was detected – a ballot with two votes for different people in the same election, for example, according to a story today on WNYC.org.

Often the error notice caused voters to make another error, or confirm the first one, such as voting for two people in the same race

Other polling places in the Bronx voided about 1 percent of the votes cast there for voter error or other circumstances. The South Bronx location had to void almost 20 percent of its votes.

The over-votes were spread out among the candidates, not all cast for just one.

Many of the over-votes were due to confusing layouts that made it look as if voters had to mark their votes for governor in two spots rather than the actual single location.

Thirty-two percent of districts in the Bronx had over-votes greater than 1 percent of their total during 2010. Other boroughs also had overtove percentages in double digits, but at around half the rate as in the Bronx.

Andrew Cuomo, 52, son of one-time New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo – won the governor's seat comfortably with almost two thirds of the popular vote.

The errant machine in the South Bronx didn't have any real impact on that race because of the wide martin. Cuomo's nearest rival tallied 32 percent of the vote.

The Brennan Center is pushing for statistical analysis of voting patterns in other precincts in order to catch other potential errors or identify other machines that should be tested before inaccuracies in vote counts have an impact on a close race, Norden said.

"One of the fortunate things about this problem in the South Bronx was that, where those machines were used, there were no close elections so it didn’t have an impact, but there’s no question that, in a close election, it would," Norden said.

The debate that raged during the past few years over whether to rely on electronic voting machines whose vote counts could be corrupted or potentially hacked and manipulated by outsiders isn't really a part of this event.

The ES&S machines just scan paper ballots and count the result, as similar machines do at thousands of polling places across the country. Considering how many tens of thousands of similar machines calculate SAT scores, standardized aptitude scores and often regular classroom tests across the country, you'd think the technology would be well enough known that something as important as a vote-counting machine wouldn't go haywire from the heat in a middle-school gym.

Apparently it's a lot harder than you'd think, at least if all those extra votes were an accident rather than an attempt at automating civic processes as well as those in business.

A little more pressure, a little more heat and the ES&S machines could be ready to handle all the balloting themselves, so voters don't even have to go to the trouble of showing up to doodle in their choices.

Obviously this was not a mistake or a hardware glitch. It was time-saving, productivity-boosting automation that the NY Board of Elections was simply too dim and pedantic to realize.

Next time, maybe the machine will let them know they can just stay home and wait for the result rather than having to go out and create it themselves.

Some people just don't appreciate when technology tries to make their lives easier.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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