How $2 Million Could Derail Open-Source Voting Machines in NY Elections


By John DeSio

A Long Island technology firm might just have the solution to bring fair elections, free from corporate greed and malicious manipulation, to New York State. And they’re willing to give it away for free. But the State Board of Elections’ $2 million testing fee might keep money in the way of preserving the democratic process.

There may still be hope for the company, Open Voting Solutions, which has found a champion in Brooklyn City Council Member Darlene Mealy and numerous voting rights activists, all of whom are pushing for the company to see the fee waived as the first step towards eliminating the influence of the three major voting machine corporations, Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold), Election Systems & Software, and Sequoia Voting Systems, on elections in the State.

Along with a series of resolutions designed to protect voters from intimidation and disenfranchisement in the City, Mealy has put forth City Council Resolution 961, which would seek to place a number of stipulations on the State’s eventual election vendor that none of the three major companies would be likely to meet, such as requiring the use of open-source software for voting machines.

Such software could be accessed by the general public and would not come with the usage restrictions and added fees associated with other commercial options. In the early 1990’s the state of Oklahoma initiated such a system, which puts the state completely in charge of their voting apparatus and allows Oklahoma to update their software as concerns are raised. You almost never hear Oklahoma mentioned in the same breath as voter disenfranchisement.

The questionable histories of the three major voting companies are enough to make anyone look for more transparent options. In August a report by Dan Rather on the HD Network revealed that Election Systems & Software had been knowingly shipping defective machines to its governmental customers. Sequoia’s machines have been found to undercount minority votes. And Diebold so destroyed its reputation through a variety of mistakes in its election division that the company changed its name.

But the real problem with these companies, according to voting rights activists, is the closed door way these companies do business. Their software is unavailable for inspection by the general public. They charge heavy access fees for the use of their machines even after they have been purchased by the government. And their customer service and tech departments can be anything but helpful.

In 2002 Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which required every county in the United States to upgrade their voting systems in the wake of the 2000 presidential election voting fiasco that took place in Florida. New York’s lever-based machines are illegal under HAVA, but so far the State has resisted the push to upgrade. Mealy’s bill would recommend that New York’s upgrade look just like Oklahoma’s.

“If we want to live in a democracy, we have to make sure that our voters are not
harassed and intimidated,” said Mealy. “We also have to make sure we are providing voters with machines that actually count their vote.”

Open Voting Solutions is near completion on two systems that meet the requirements of Mealy’s bill. The software would be given to the State, which would then buy its own machines to use the software. In exchange, Open Voting Solutions would be contracted to service the system. And given the nature of open-source software, everything would be an open book.

But the State Board of Elections needs the company to jump one major hurdle before they could even consider its system: a major fee. The State requires any company seeking to sell its voting system to pay a $1 million fee to facilitate the system’s testing. Lee Daghlian, a spokesperson for the State Board of Elections, said the estimated fee of $1,000,000 per system is based on testing done on five other systems during the past 18 months. The board will be shifting its testing to a new lab soon, so fees could be different in the future, said Daghlian.

Having developed two separate systems, Open Voting Solutions needs to put up $2 million before they could give their system away. They have applied for a fee waiver with the Board of Elections, but so far it has not been approved. The waiver will next be considered by the board on November 29.

“Right now we’re kind of dead in the water, because we don’t have stacks of money lying around the office,” said Richard C. Johnson, the company’s CEO. Johnson compared the fee to a lock on the State’s voting systems, to which only a few companies have the money key to open. Until the fee is waived, corporate voting machines will remain the king of New York, he said.

“The fee structure shuts out small companies,” said Johnson. “We just can’t do it.”