Learning from Cuyahoga: Economics

This is the first in a series of posts on voting technology. Voting technology is important to the 29th for a couple of reasons. First, Eric Massa says he will make supporting a conversion to scanned paper ballots his first post-election priority. It's worth seeing whether that position makes sense. Second, by 2008, New York will have switched from proven and widely-accepted lever voting machines to some new voting technology. This year, at least one Congressional District, FL-13 (Sarasota County), is in turmoil because of a suspected malfunction of electronic machines. New York will probably have a number of close Congressional races in '08, including the 29th, so we need to avoid a situation like the mess in Florida.

New York is in an enviable position when it comes to procuring voting technology. A number of other states have gone first, and we can learn from their mistakes. Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which includes Cleveland, has been on the bleeding edge, and their experience has made them want to ditch electronic voting machines and turn to scanned ballots. This post will look at one aspect of the Cuyahoga experience: the economics and scalability of machines versus ballots. The next post will take a closer look at other election issues raised by a 234-page study [pdf] of Cuyahoga's 2006 primary. That report, which was issued by an independent, non-partisan testing body, raises serious doubts about electronic voting machines, including those with a paper trail.

The first simple fact about voting machines is that they are expensive. New Yorkers for Verified Voting (NYVV), a non-partisan, non-profit organization, has conducted an in-depth, county-by-county comparison [pdf] of the cost of voting machines versus scanned paper ballots. Overall, electronic machines would cost $116 million more than a scan system. In Monroe County alone, the difference is over $6 million.

One might think that voting machine costs are front-loaded, since the scan system requires the printing of paper ballots for every election. The NYVV report shows that this probably isn't the case. Touchscreen voting machines, which take a beating from voters, aren't warranted for more than five years, whereas scanners last much longer (14 years in some cases). This faster replacement cycle might make up for the higher recurring cost of paper ballots. In addition, the NYVV estimates do not include the cost of paper and toner need for the paper trail produced by electronic machines, which adds a significant recurring cost to the electronic option.

Since electronic machines cost $8,000 each, there won't be a lot of extras hanging around. Yet, in the Cuyahoga study, almost 4% of the voting machines suffered a failure and had to be shut down on election day. A failed machine might mean lines in the polling place. The study also found another potential source of lines: ballot length. Because this length varies by jurisdiction, the study recommended that Cuyahoga buy more machines and create a deployment strategy to position machines to better handle voter demand.

In a paper-ballot system, voting booths cost roughly $250. It's much cheaper to have a few extra hanging around to handle higher demand, and voting booths won't have a 4% failure rate. No fancy studies are required to allocate resources when the resource is cheap and reliable.

In the paper system, each polling place will usually have one scanner. If that scanner fails, the polling place can still open (or stay open) because ballots can be voted without being immediately scanned. Unlike electronic voting machines, the easiest-to-break part of the scanned ballot system is not critical to the operation of the polls.

Cuyahoga might still keep their electronic voting system. After all, it's hard to throw away a $17 million system and start over from scratch. New York is lucky that we can learn from their mistake and choose scanned paper ballots.