By Brad Friedman on 3/28/2012, 12:45pm PT  

This is really great. But the subsequent information I've received from the Columbia County, NY commissioners in reply to my query is even better!

For a start, here's the key parts of the story from Debora Gilbert at The Columbia Paper near Albany, New York.

Note, in particular, how both the Republican and Democratic commissioners concur on what should not be a partisan issue. They are doing a great service to their voters. Read the story and then I'll share the even better news with you below that...

HUDSON-Columbia County's election commissioners have counted 100% of the paper ballots in every election for the past two years, ever since the county switched to using new voting machines as part of a federal mandate. Their approach can delay the final vote tally and it may seem an odd when technology has taken over so many manual tasks.

But they question the accuracy of the results for the new machines and see no reason to stop checking them by hand.

“The most accurate and reliable method is a 100% visual audit,” Elections Commissioner Jason Nastke (R) said Tuesday. He referred to multiple scanner miscounts in Greenport in a past election. “The machines are not completely reliable,” he said.

“Hand counting allows for voter intent to be taken into consideration,” said Election Commissioner Virginia Martin (D). “If someone has circled rather than filled in the ovals, it counts when the ballots are hand counted, but with machine counting, the only allowed discrepancies involve machine error, not human error.”

Optical scanners were viewed as a welcome alternative when compared to the more expensive and less secure touch screen machines that were the only other option during the push to have counties purchase and install new voting machines in 2009.

In a commentary published in the Times Union newspaper in Albany last week, Buffalo attorney Peter Reese wrote that the new voting system has led to “tens of thousands of invalid overvotes,” citing specific cases, including one near Buffalo that he was involved with. He blames New York's HAVA compliance law.

Many voting activists favored the optical scanning system because it uses paper ballots that should allow an easy method of verification. Many hoped all the ballots would be posted online to allow easy oversight by citizens. But the law only calls for a small, random sampling of 3% of the machines to monitor accuracy. In Columbia County that would mean hand counting the results of one machine, said Ms. Martin. Both commissioners agree that a sample of this size is inadequate.
...
“The beauty of our situation is that the two election commissioners have agreed in advance to hand count ballots,” said Ms. Martin. After a primary, when one party might have the lead, it would be tougher to agree on something like this, she said.

“Although we're looking into a different kind of audit, it seems easier just to hand count and you have great voter confidence…. We have a very strict chain of custody procedure, with redundancy built into our system. Those who see our accounting procedures know we leave nothing to chance,” Ms. Martin said.

I couldn't be more delighted than to read the above. Well, actually, I could be.

From the story, as written, it was unclear whether or not Columbia was hand-counting in a central location, after ballots were moved from the polling place, or whether they were actually hand-counting at each precinct after the close of polls, with all parties, video-cameras and members of the public overseeing the counting and results posted decentrally at the polling place before ballots are moved anywhere.

So I dropped a note to both Commissioners Nastke and Martin to see if they were counting centrally (after ballots had been moved, and thus, questions about the secure chain of custody could arise) and, if so, whether they had any plans to try hand-counting publicly at the polling place in future elections, as per what we consider around here to be "Democracy's Gold Standard".

I received a very speedy --- and quite encouraging --- reply from Virginia Martin. Here it is in full...

Hi, Brad--Good to know that you're on top of things, as always!

Yes, we count centrally. Yes, we have talked about doing, and would like to do, pollsite counts immediately after the close of polls. There are folks in our county who are very eager to have us do so. The fact, though, is that we just haven't yet been able to pull it together to do those at-the-polls counts. We've talked about trying it first in one or maybe two poll sites that are located in fairly close proximity to the Board, which would make it easier for us to oversee the counts as may be necessary. Then in subsequent elections we would expand our pollsite counts as proved feasible. It is indeed a goal.

As you can imagine, our ballot-custody procedures are exceedingly stringent and leave nothing to chance. We're very confident that what we count is precisely what we should be counting.

We're running four and possibly five elections this year (two is the norm for us), and I'm not sure if that makes the job theoretically easier or more difficult.

Yes, the proceedings are open to party representatives, candidates and their representatives, and the media. We haven't turned anyone away.

Nice to hear from you. Thank you for your crucially important work in election integrity!

Virginia Martin
Democratic Commissioner
Board of Elections, Columbia County

Good news indeed! As long time readers know, we have long been calling for hand-counted paper ballot pilot projects, very much like the one Martin describes as being considered in her note. We'll look forward to that in the future, if the democracy gods continuing smiling on Columbia County, NY.

As noted in the article, while Columbia uses hand-marked paper ballots, computerized optical-scan voting systems are simply not to be trusted, given their frequent inaccuracies and malfunctions and the ease with which they can be manipulated (as we have been documenting here for years.)

One recent example of such an op-scan failure in NY took place in 2010 in the South Bronx. But, incredibly enough, it came to light only a few weeks ago after the New York Daily News finally did a public records request for copies of the ballots from one of the precincts were anomalous results had been noticed by NYU's Brennan Center for Justice.

As we detailed in late February, on the eve of the GOP primaries in Arizona and Michigan (where they use similarly unreliable optical-scan tabulating systems), the newspaper discovered that hundreds of paper ballots had been mistallied in both the 2010 primary and general elections at the one precinct they looked at.

An analysis by the Daily News found that the error rate of the op-scan systems during the September primary that year was 70% --- with 69 errors out of 103 ballots tallied. In November's general election, 156 out of 289 paper ballots had been mistallied by the op-scanners, for a failure rate of 54%. All of that, discovered almost two years after the elections.

With that in mind, Columbia County's Martin looks pretty smart when we look back at her resistance over the years to move to the computer systems the state was forcing counties to move to as replacements for the lever systems used across much of NY.

In 2009, she stunned state legislators at the NY State Assembly's Standing Committee on Election Law when she testified as to why she refused to rely on the computer systems they were forcing on her county (and all of the others in the state): "If Columbia County starts using software to count votes, I will not certify an election unless an appropriately designed audit of the paper ballots is conducted. So far, the State Board [of Elections] has not mandated an audit that audit experts agree will expose inaccurate counts."

In 2010, in her must-read editorial Martin said that "Our state handed us a $50-million lemon when it required that we use computers to count votes." She went on to detail her reasons for insisting on hand-counts: "Since I, as election commissioner, have to certify to the accuracy of any election run under my watch, that steers me in the direction of a more elemental process --- a hand count under the watchful gaze of individuals who are invested in its accuracy."

So, once again, kudos to the Election Commission in Columbia County, NY for taking the important steps to actually serve the voters by helping to ensure real confidence in their elections with hand-counted paper ballots. They are setting an example for the nation and I can only hope other election officials are taking notice.

[Hat-tip to @sjdorst on the Twitters for flagging the original Columbia Paper report!]

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