You know those new electronic vote-scanning machines that are supposed to be foolproof in reading and counting every ballot in an election? Well, they’re anything but foolproof. In fact, they can screw up voter tallies to a fare-thee-well even after technicians carefully calibrate and test them. So state and city election officials have discovered, along with the machine’s manufacturer, thanks to insistent prodding by this page. Their learning experience began at a polling place at Public School 65 in the Bronx, where official tallies for 2010 primary and general elections showed that as many as 70% of the voters had cast invalid ballots, disqualifying them. The Brennan Center at NYU Law School brought the obviously impossible discrepancy to the attention of the city Board of Elections. The board responded, in essence, “Who cares?”
The answer was, “The Daily News Editorial Board cares.” Using the Freedom of Information Law, we compelled election officials, for the first time, to open to public inspection photographs that the machines take of every ballot. The look-see proved that a machine had gone haywire. The election board responded, “Impossible.” The manufacturer, a company called ES&S, responded, “Doubly impossible.”
Election officials theorized that fault rested with ballots that must have gotten wet or warped when left on a radiator. Which was a statement of severe psychological denial, because the same machine had shown the same failures in two elections that used completely different ballots. The city board ran a test. The machine passed. The state Board of Elections then stepped in to investigate. Technicians calibrated the machine and ran ballots through. The device did fine. But later on, after a few hours had passed, it began to fail with an error rate of close to 100%. ES&S then ran its own tests and concluded that if a machine is not cleaned correctly, it will lose its calibration once the device warms up to working temperature. Test it while cool, and the count will be perfect; test it warm, and the count will be nonsense.