Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Tests on an electronic voting machine that recorded shockingly high numbers of extra votes in the 2010 election show that overheating may have caused upwards of 30 percent of the votes in a South Bronx voting precinct to go uncounted.
WNYC first reported on the issue in December 2011, when it was found that tens of thousands of votes in the 2010 elections went uncounted because electronic voting machines counted more than one vote in a race.
A review by the state Board of Election and the electronic voting machines’ manufacturer ES&S found that these "over votes," as they’re called, were due to a machine error. In the report issued by ES&S, when the machine used in the South Bronx overheated, ballots run during a test began coming back with errors.
“After lunch [when the machine was idle for about an hour] almost every ballot was read incorrectly, in all orientations, even ballots that had read correctly just before lunch,” the ES&S report said.
“There’s some kind of defect in these machines that when they overheat they can create what they’re calling phantom votes,” said Larry Norden, a deputy director with the Brennan Center. “That could mean that if the person hasn’t voted in a contest, they could have a vote attributed to them that they never intended to cast. In the case of these voters in the South Bronx what it meant was that they actually meant to vote for somebody and the machine was adding votes in those contests because it had overheated.”
The Brennan Center brought a lawsuit in 2010 after reports of voters being given a confusing warning screen when an over vote was detected. The legal process led to the finding of the South Bronx districts where more than one out of every three votes were invalidated.
Board of Election Commissioner J.C. Polanco, a Republican from the Bronx, said the boards do a rigorous test of each machine, per state law, before deployment during an election and that the machine in question passed its tests on Election Day but will no longer be used.
“Commissioner [Naomi] Barrera, [the Democratic Bronx commissioner] and I pushed for the New York City board for us to get this machine replaced by ES&S and they have agreed to replace this machine immediately so the voters can rest assured that this machine will no longer be deployed,” Polanco said.
Norden said so far the machine in the Bronx was the only machine found to have this problem, but it’s also the only machine that’s been tested. The data that led the Brennan Center to discover the problem didn’t cover the entire city. While the South Bronx district was by far the most egregious problem area found, having virtually any over voting means there could be widespread issues.
“We would expect less than one percent of people to over vote, particularly in a governor’s race,” Norden said.
Given that the city uses more than five thousand of these electronic voting machines, an error like this, unresolved, could have disastrous consequences in a close election.
“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 reports provided a number of recommendations, including letting the machines warm up for an hour before testing prior to use and having better review procedures post-election for “numbers that seem out of the ordinary”.
Polanco said that the board is looking at implementing these recommendations, and, while “statistically speaking”, there was no way to guarantee something like what happened in the South Bronx could happen again, that he was confident the city’s electronic voting machines remain reliable.
“We don’t expect there to be another issue,” he said.