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nystecJuly 11, 2008

After receiving several complaints that state-certified voting devices failed in local testing, the New York State Board of Elections ordered an independent audit of its acceptance testing process. NYSTEC finds the State’s Acceptance Testing is quite good, but ignores Sequoia’s admission of “systemic failure.” Nassau calls it a “CYA” report.

NYSTEC Review of NY SBOE Certification Testing Finds Poor Training, Lack of Communication to Blame for Machine Failures. Counties Balk at “CYA” Report.


After receiving several complaints that state-certified voting devices failed in local testing, the New York State Board of Elections (SBOE) ordered an independent audit of its acceptance testing process.  The New York State Technology Enterprise Corporation (NYSTEC) also evaluated “whether the testing process provides an adequate evaluation of the condition of electronic voting systems.”  NYSTEC’s main findings center on two factors:  better vendor training of county employees; and increased communication by vendors and the SBOE with counties. 

Nassau County purchased 450 ballot marking devices (BMDs) from Sequoia, at a cost of $12,000 each.  It reported that 85% of 240 machines were non-functional, one fifth of them damaged during shipment.  New York City also experienced software failure, when it tested ES&S AutoMARK’s BMD, as attested at the June 23rd NYC Government Services Committee, reported Nassau County Attorney Lori Barrett.   

Ballot marking devices allow disabled voters to vote independently, printing the ballot for them, and would fulfill NY’s compliance with the Help America Vote Act.  Yet a substantial portion of BMDs received in Nassau registered a printer failure.

NYSTEC is a private, not-for-profit firm that provides systems engineering and technical assistance in “acquiring, implementing and securing technology systems,” according to its website.  After a one-day review on July 8th, NYSTEC concluded on July 10th: 

“[T]he policies and procedures used for acceptance testing of the BMD’s are quite good and are being followed diligently.  There are many checks and balances in place that would make it very hard for a machine to pass acceptance testing and arrive at a county with the number of issues that were noted by Nassau.  That being said, we did find a few things outside of the actual process of acceptance testing that are areas in need of improvement.

“The main concern is a lack of communication and coordination with the counties by both the voting system vendors and SBOE.  On the vendor side, each vendor should make sure that each county board is adequately trained on the use of their system prior to any delivery of their equipment….  SBOE also has room for improvement in communicating with the counties…. 

“It is recommended that any tips discovered during [centralized] acceptance testing be quickly passed on to the counties so they can take save time and effort by taking advantage of lessons learned.” 

Inadequate training and poor communication cannot fully explain the situation in Nassau, since officials successfully operated 22 of the 240 machines it received from the State.  NYSTEC’s report also failed to mention Sequoia’s admission of “systemic failure” in the design of these BMDs.

When asked about the NYSTEC findings, Nassau County Commissioner Bill Biamonte said, “This report is CYA.” 

July 9th Testing at Nassau County

Yesterday, representatives from the SBOE, Sequoia and the Department of Justice met in Nassau County to test 25 of the machines that failed local testing.  We would expect Sequoia fully understands its machines, yet discovered non-resolvable problems with six of them, shipping them back to the plant.    

Biamonte pointed out, “These are all tech-related issues with the equipment.”  Nassau knows how to follow instructions, the BMDs simply don’t work.  “If this was an issue of properly training the counties, then why did Sequoia just now assign a full time technician to Nassau County to stay with us through the election?” 

The primary is scheduled for September 9th, less than sixty days from now.

The SYSTEC report also failed to mention that Nassau was advised that the BMD’s “internal diagnostics testing was turned off, to accommodate a USB cable failure,” said Biamonte.  This explains why some of the machines reported printer failure.  BMDs were created to print ballots for disabled voters.  Biamonte asks: 

“How do we know, then, that the printer works if the diagnostics is turned off?  If you pay for something that has a diagnostics feature, you expect to get that feature.  It’s like buying a car where the gauges don’t work.  So you learn you’re out of oil on the highway when the engine seizes.”

Biamonte also reported that when the same machine was tested more than once, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. “These machines are skittish!”

Shipping Fees 

Nassau County is not happy with the SBOE testing these machines in Albany, when Sequoia manufactures the BMDs on Long Island (where Nassau is situated).  The state charges $250 in shipping for each BMD delivered from Albany to Nassau, reported Nassau County Attorney Lori Barrett.  Biamonte explained on a July 2nd Voice of the Voters radio broadcast that one of the reasons they chose Sequoia was because of its proximity.  He would like to see joint testing of the BMDs with the SBOE in Nassau. This would also reduce the exorbitant shipping costs that Nassau County is forced to absorb, amounting to over $110,000. 

“We were told when we selected this manufacturer [Sequoia] – one of the reasons we selected them was that they made a major push, both the State Board and the manufacturer, that these machines would be manufactured locally, in Long Island…. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?  Because they’re manufactured, they could be delivered to us, they could be acceptance tested by us, and working with the State, considering any defect problems, or any problems like we just [had]… they would be locally so we could address it locally. 

“The State did an about-face; decided that they were going to do centralized acceptance testing….  And the process has been, at best, a disaster, because we have almost 80% failure of machines being delivered. These are the same machines that the State has passed.  They’ve certified that these machines passed their acceptance testing….  We’ve been pressing all along that we really need to do local acceptance testing….”

NYSTEC concluded otherwise, advising in its July 10th report: 

“One of the big advantages of centralized testing is that a large number of people are testing systems over time.  As a result, discovery of issues and identifying resolutions occurs faster than it would if acceptance testing were being done at individual county locations.  Testers get more experienced and discover shortcuts and other information that individual counties can reap the benefit from.”

Centralized testing creates additional costs that budget-strapped counties are expected to absorb.  Biamonte is furious over the $111,000 additional shipping costs Nassau is forced to absorb.  In a phone call today, he explained that one of their people, Donald Steiner, has been in the freight business for over 25 years.  “We’re paying six to eight times the going rate to have these BMDs shipped from Albany.” 

Last night, NY SBOE Commissioner Douglas Kellner responded to one of several questions posed, regarding these shipping fees. 

“The shipping fee was part of the bid submitted by each vendor and should have been factored in when the counties selected their voting system.

“The counties have the option of shipping the machines from the Albany acceptance test site themselves, but the counties are then responsible for any damage that might occur after receiving delivery of the machines in Albany.  Several counties in the capital area did choose to arrange for their own delivery from Albany.”

In a phone conversation today, Nassau County attorney Lori Barrett  flatly denied that Nassau negotiated this shipment rate with Sequoia.  Biamonte backed up Barrett’s assertion.  

“We had nothing to do with it.  The State negotiated the RFPs (Request for Proposals) with the vendors.”

Despite the July 10th report fom NYSTEC, which the SBOE ordered, it appears that the high rate of machine failure experienced in Nassau County is not a result of local confusion about how to operate the BMDs, but rather a problem in their design.  In the July 9th testing in Nassau, Sequoia discovered a 25% failure rate.

Something’s wrong somewhere.  If not in the SBOE certification process, then in the choice of frail software driven systems that cannot survive shipment or that are poorly designed.

New York is under a court order to deploy these frail, non-functional systems before the fall elections.  Yet, Sequoia is having trouble meeting production demands.  There simply are not enough functional machines on the market. 

Court orders ought to be based in reality.  Judge Gary Sharpe and the Department of Justice seem overly focused on HAVA-compliance, requiring that disabled accessible devices be deployed to every polling site this year.  No regard is given to the cost, security, reliability, or functionality of such systems, or that enough even exist to meet the Court’s order.  (See January 2008 Remedial Order enforcing the SBOE’s timeline.)