The reports of computer viruses in NY voting machines -- though spurious -- cause me to return to a basic mantra of TrustTheVote: we do technology development so that election tech helps inspire public confidence in elections, rather than erode it. The NY case is a great example of erosion, but also a cautionary tale for future inspiration. The caution comes from the significant and ongoing confusion about the term "virus". But first, the situation in question arose in Hamilton County, NY, part of the hotly contested NY 23rd Congressional District race between Hoffman and Owens. It's an ugly scene, because the vote was close, it's already certified, Owen is seated, but re-canvassing efforts highlighted some counting irregularities. These weren't large enough to effect the race, but were enough to spark Hoffman to un-concede defeat, and to issue a letter with some really disturbing claims of the election having been stolen. Now, add to this the claim that the election result is further tainted by the discovery of a computer virus in the voting system used in Hamilton. That's a real example of tech digging the confidence hole that much deeper - ouch!
But the really sad part of this, for me, is that the true story is a good story about election officials doing the right thing: when they found a software bug, they worked with the vendor and created an effective work-around -- maintaining the integrity of the system, the exact opposite of the story about the virus undermining the system. The real virus is that spurious story! The details, provided by NY State election official Doug Kellner, also provide another example of complexity of diligent election administration:
In pre-election testing several counties discovered the Dominion ImageCast machines froze when fed ballots that contained contests with multiple candidates to be elected. It was determined during the week before the election that the cause was a source code programming error in the dynamic memory allocation of the function that stores ballot images--not the counting function. Although only one line of source code needed modification, NYSBOE staff properly refused to approve any modification of source code without proper certification. Dominion developed a work-around by changing the ballot configuration file--not the source code so that the machines using the new configuration files functioned on election day. It is my understanding that a few county officials, who were using the machines for the first time, did not properly revise the configuration files and the machines were used in emergency ballot mode--that is, ballots were inserted in the emergency ballot boxes contained within the machine and were counted manually after the close of the polls.
Kudos to NY for doing their job right, in the real world of flawed equipment, not the fantasy land of viruses and stolen elections. New Yorkers should be thanking the NYSBOE for a job well done!
PS: For a detailed debunking of the virus claims, see the blog of NY election tech expert and advocate Bo Lipari. It's excellent. It got picked up in local press. But it can't catch up to the idea virus, as the tale continues to mutate through the blogosphere that Hoffman was cheated by corrupt election officials, or ACORN, or computer hackers, or viruses, or some combination. ;-(