Voting Technology

Voting machines and their implementation.

Voting Machines

The Corning Leader documents the use of new voting machines in Steuben County. Steuben's machines were used for the first time in Tuesday's election.

Steuben is apparently one of the few counties in the 29th using the new technology. According to the Leader, Chemung County used lever machines. When I voted yesterday in Monroe County, I used the same lever machine technology that's been in use for 50 years.

The Leader reports on the usual screw-ups that accompany any roll-out of new technology. Tallies on the Steuben County website are wrong. A breakdown at one polling station required the use of a plan B that involves paper ballots.

Since turnout on Tuesday was a fraction of what it will be a year from now, I hope Chemung and Monroe aren't going to use that election as the first test of their new machines.

Election Count Going to Court

The Corning Leader reports that the Steuben County Sheriff's race will be the subject of a court hearing today. The initial election count was 2,952-2,794 for David Cole. The current count is 3,089-3,011 for Joel Ordway.

Steuben County's Election Mess

Reader Tom sends Joe Dunning's column [gif] about poll worker performance in the recent primary for Steuben County Sheriff. It was awful.

Some highlights: Five of 85 precincts reported incorrectly. One set of poll workers went home without reporting results. The "fact" that one of the candidates received zero votes in his home town was reported without question by poll workers.

New York has been using the same voting technology for generations, and poll workers still screw up. Just imagine the mess if we were trying to implement electronic voting this year.

New York Will Vote on Paper

The New York State Board of Elections has approved three optical scan ballot machines for use by counties in New York.  This probably means that we'll be voting on paper ballots that will be scanned after marking, beginning in 2009.  Counties have until February 8 to make a final choice of one of the three approved devices.

Bo Lipari, executive director of the non-profit New Yorkers for Verified Voting, sent an email to the Albany Project describing the history of his organization's work against electronic voting machines.  It makes interesting reading, because if we had rushed the choice, we'd have been in the same situation as Maryland.

Hobby-Horse Update

I'm trying to avoid sounding like an old man sitting on the porch telling the young'uns how easy they have it nowadays, so I've combined all my hobby horse issues into one post.  Here comes voting technology and the D&C, with an Iraq chaser:

I haven't posted much about voting technology since New York wisely decided to delay their decision and stick with our lever machines for the near future.  But I can't help pointing and laughing at the recent Maryland decision to scrap their Diebold system and start over with paper ballots and scanners.  Money quote:

By 2010, four years before its $65 million touch-screen machines will be paid off, Maryland expects to be back on the paper trail, following states such as Florida and California, which have also decided that all-electronic systems make it too easy to compromise elections.
So it turns out that quitting the D&C isn't as simple as it sounds.  I canceled my subscription on New Year's Day, yet three weeks later  I'm still getting the paper delivered every day to my door.  I've called the D&C's customer service office in Louisville, KY and been assured that my subscription is canceled.   I can only imagine that this little bit of administrative incompetence is a tiny window into the irrational "rationalization" of customer service into a few mega-centers.

Finally I want to recommend last week's Fresh Air series on Iraq.  Host Terry Gross interviewed 10 different guests, each of whom had long experience and a different perspective on the war.  It's well worth listening to both shows, the first here, and the second here.  Fresh Air is also available as a podcast here -- pick the January 16 and 17 shows.  One of the most interesting guests, Lt. Col. John Nagl, who was a major player in writing the Army counterinsurgency manual, announced his retirement on the day the show was aired.

Voting and the Feds

I quit posting on voting technology because it looked like New York had wisely decided to stick with its proven, blessedly analog voting machines for the near future.  The US Department of Justice wants none of that, however, and is going to court to force New York to use digital voting machines next year.  New York has two weeks to file its response to the DOJ's motion in federal court.

The chaos of fast-tracking an electronic voting system during a Presidential election year is staggering to contemplate.

Federal Voting Panel: Electronic Machines A-OK

A group of technologists on a federal advisory panel deadlocked on a proposal to require paper trails on electronic voting machines. Even though experience shows that paper trails are better than nothing, those voting against paper trails cited the need to replace voting systems as one of the reasons for rejecting the proposal.

This is a classic case of throwing good money after bad: once an expensive system is purchased, the pressure to retain and enhance -- rather than replace -- that system is overwhelming. It is critical that New York chooses the right voting technology the first time, because second chances are almost non-existent in government technology procurement.

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.

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.

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