Learning from Cuyahoga: Paper Tape Doesn't Work

When we last visited Cuyahoga County, we learned why the economics of voting systems are on the side of scanned paper ballots. During today's visit to Cleveland, we'll see why the paper trail on electronic voting machines is a poor substitute for a ballot.

Part of the the non-profit, non-partisan Election Sciences Institute analysis [pdf] of Cuyahoga's electronic voting machines was a recount of the May, 2006 primary. That recount compared the paper tape generated by the electronic voting machines with the memory cartridges that store vote counts. It found a lot of discrepancies:

  • 17% of the tapes showed a discrepancy between 1-5 votes from the electronic tally. 2% of the tapes showed a difference of more than 25 votes.
  • 1.4% of the tapes had missing ballots. 40 tapes (10%), were somehow compromised (taped together, illegible, blank, destroyed, etc)
  • The chain of custody of the paper rolls was poorly documented: 76% of the paper rolls had incomplete labeling, and 46% of them were blank.
  • When a paper tape contained results from multiple precincts, the information on the tape did not clearly identify the precinct from which the vote originated.

A lot of the errors in chain of custody, as well as with the illegible and blank tapes, could be chalked up to poor training of polling place workers. The study recommended substantial changes in the training of those workers. Even so, the study pointed out that the paper tape mechanism is a source of great risk to the validity of the whole voting process. When a tape jams, runs out of ink, or otherwise stops working, the physical record of the vote is lost.

In New York State, lever voting machines sometimes malfunction, and over the years we've accepted the risk of occasional glitch as acceptable given the other benefits of lever machines. But the promise of electronic voting with paper record is the best of both worlds: the convenience of a lever machine with a paper audit trail. The Cuyahoga experience shows that the state-of-the-art audit trail is suspect at best, and requires a level of training and diligence from poll workers well above current expectations.

This last point is critical, because it's easy to mandate more training for poll workers as a cure-all for problems with the voting system. But turning them into election machine repairpeople is just not practical. Poll workers are people with other jobs and interests who work elections a few times per year. They are generally older and less comfortable with technology. Expecting them to set up and verify the function of voting machines, and to repair them when they break, is putting a major new set of tasks on their plate.

In Cuyahoga, the study found that 1/3 of the election workers had trouble setting up the machines, 45% had problems closing out the machines at the end of voting, and 38% had problems repairing the paper tapes. Over half said their training was inadequate, and almost 60% said they needed more hands-on training.

In a scanned ballot system, the role of most poll workers is to make sure that voters get ballots and know how to mark them. The main technology involved is a sharpie. Only a few poll workers per polling place need training in the mechanics of the scanning system, and if the scanner breaks, the integrity of the paper ballots is not compromised. Cuyahoga has shown that electronic voting machines with paper tape are not only inaccurate, they're also a heavy burden for poll workers.