Machine Politics

Village Voice
June 20, 1995, p. 20

by Michael Tomasky

One of the old-timers was describing a fight at the board of Estimate, way back in the '50s, over a parking meter contract. The old-timer and annoying reformers had set out to prove to the city elders that they were buying parking meters that any two-bit hood could turn into a slot machine: a little piece of properly cut steel in the keyhole, and - jackpot! The city fathers were forced to watch as the reformers repeatedly emptied out a handful of meters in the time it takes for a stoplight to change, and they screamed: "Enough already!" When it came time for the Board of Estimate to vote, the reformers were absolutely certain the wise men on the board wouldn't renew.

Needless to say, they did.

The parking meter of the 1990s might well be the computerized voting machine, to be introduced to the body politic this fall if all goes as planned. It was more than 10 years ago that the city decided it should dangle its electoral toe in newer technological waters. The mechanical machines through which we now exercise our franchise, manufactured by the Shoup company out of Pennsylvania, are more than 30 years old. They have, from time to time, malfunctioned; in the 1984 presidential primary, Jesse Jackson's first, there were allegations of undercounting in minority neighborhoods, which led to a hue and a cry that was repeated in 1988. Let us have new machines, came the call. The city put out word, and the vultures circled: four companies bid, and one by one, they signed on the most heavily wired lobbyists in the city. Two had been Koch campaign aides, at a time, of course, when Koch was mayor. The lobbyist story was of running interest for several years and reached its apogee when Ed Sadowski, lobbying for the Sequoia Pacific firm, wore a wire for the Manhattan D.A. to try to pin a bribery charge on Tony Sadowski, a Queens elections commissioner. It's a great town where two Sadowskis can be involved in a possible kickback scandal (the D.A. never brought charges).

To the present. Sequoia Pacific, a subsidiary of the huge paper and packaging firm Jefferson Smurfit, won the contract. It's $60 million for 7500 machines, which run about $6100 apiece, plus related costs. Delivery of the first few machines was supposed to happen last Friday. Didn't, though. Still, supporters hope 80 machines will be used in one Bronx assembly district this fall as a test. But several critics have expressed serious reservations about the machines: Are they, first of all, better--that is, quicker and more reliable? Are they secure? Are they worth $60 million out of the capital budget, at a time when the Giuliani administration's capital budget cuts back on mass transit contributions, housing starts, construction of day care facilities? The maximum amount the capital budget can be is set by a formula, so $60 million more for voting machines means $60 million less for something else.

Last Tuesday, the mayor, number-one aide Peter Powers, deputy mayor Fran Reiter, Department of General Services Commissioner William Diamond, and other mayoral types met with Board of Elections officials, notably Doug Kellner of Manhattan. Kellner wants to cancel the contract, for fiscal and ballot security reasons: "It is not an appropriate technology for voting." He says that Giuliani started the meeting a supporter of the new machines but left it with doubts. "The mayor and Peter Powers asked all the right questions," Kellner says. "It's clear to me that the mayor is at least considering canceling the contract." This would certainly come as news to Diamond, who, as head of the department that oversees city purchases, is gung-ho for the machines.

A number of people besides Kellner have raised concerns, mostly about ballot security. Rebecca Mercuri is a research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked in computer security for a variety of industries. She took an interest in computerized voting machines in 1989, she says, and has spent six years "reading, writing, and testifying" on the subject in many cities.

"Sequoia Pacific hasn't satisfied its agreement" with New York City, Mercuri says. She says that SP and Deloitte & Touche, the accounting firm that is doing much of the systems programming, were supposed to deliver a "security and control document" that would describe how security would be delivered, what would happen in case of a breach, and so on. "It says none of those things," Mercuri says.

In the Empire State Report last fall, Princeton computerization expert Howard Strauss outlined possible vote-rigging scenarios to reporter Glenn Thrush. The worst: "Just before the polls close, a hidden virus--keyed to the battery-operated clock included in all machines--kicks in and transfers hundreds of votes from Candidate A to Candidate B." In the article, Sequoia CEO James Haysson had no real response to this scenario. There is, apparently a new report this month from SRI, an independent consulting firm the city hired, that raises security questions anew. The report, which may be made public soon, is "devastating," says Kellner.

Without a doubt, the mechanical machines have had their problems. But their performance seems to have improved lately, and many now believe they'll continue to work fine provided the city takes care of them. One problem, though, is that Shoup is out of the voting machine business; for parts, the city has had to cannibalize machines being junked by other jurisdictions. But experts say they've lasted three decades and with proper maintenance can hold out another two. The total life span of the computerized machines is 15 to 20 years, after which you're roped in to spending steady millions on "new and improved" versions.

Diamond's spokesman, Fred Winters, says the contract is a result of "the most public and exhaustive procurement process the city has ever had." He argues that the new machines have many capabilities the old ones don't, like the ability to produce full-face ballots (i.e. ,the whole ballot, every candidate for every office, on one big screen) in several languages. He asserts that security concerns the doubters have expressed are way overblown. The software is built into the chip; there's no modem, no plugs into it, no external parts "except the cassette that lays out the ballot and counts the vote"; a triple-redundant security and verification system. Of the report Kellner calls "devastating," Winters admits that it contains some criticisms but says it concludes by calling the security systems "adequate and appropriate". One point Winters and his boss Diamond can't address, of course, is whether the city can really afford it. "It's a policy question, and I can't answer it," Winters says. "Should this money be spent in light of all the other needs of the city? That's why it's the mayor's decision."

What happens now? There was a meeting of the elections commissioners Tuesday at which, Kellner said last week, he planned to push for an up or down vote on cancelling the contract. There are 10 commissioners (a Democrat and a Republican from each borough), and he didn't know if he could get the simple majority of six needed. He thinks he's close, while DGS's Winters says it's only Kellner and Bronx Republican Vince Velella (he, and several other commissioners, didn't return calls).

Meanwhile, in the City Council, West Sider Ronnie Eldridge is introducing a resolution urging the city to cancel the contract. Cancellation may carry a penalty of a few million dollars, but it's nothing close to $60 million, and State Comptroller Carl McCall recently estimated that the real total cost, with interest payments, will top $100 million. Of course, if there's one thing that will make Giuliani approve the contract, it's probably a liberal Democrat from the Upper West Side like Eldridge urging him to cancel it; but she's doing her job, and she's joined in her pursuits by Republican and close ally Charles Millard, who says, "I've never heard a good answer" to the security question. It all comes down to money: Consider the budget that the administration and council are now negotiating. Consider a capital budget that reduces commitments by $3.1 billion through 1999 on vital projects like those listed above, which is what Giuliani has proposed. Would $60 million for machines that have potential security problems and short life spans be money well spent?