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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Are new Voting Technologies More Trouble Than They Are Worth?

[Update ] Even though the original post below was written days ago, today, the day after the New Hampshire Primary, we are seeing controversary about the hi-tech machines. [End Update]

Michael Shamos, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University who has examined voting-machine systems for more than 25 years, estimates that about 10 percent of the touch-screen machines “fail” in each election.
Has advanced technology helped our voting process or has it harmed it?

Some history on voting and voting problems:

In the 19th century, America voted on paper, then came ballot-box stuffing and incompetent poll workers that lost bags of votes, which led to many casting aside the paper vote and some officials embraced the lever machines which recorded each vote mechanically, but yet again, those proved to have their own difficulties, one of which being they did not preserve each individual vote, which made recounts impossible.

Then in the 1960's many replaced the lever machine with punch-card systems, in which voters punched holes in ballots, and the ballots can be stored for a recount.

This worked for decades until the term "hanging chads" were made famous in the highly contentious 2000 presidential election in the U.S, where a majority in the U.S. Electoral College was determined in Florida by the counting of punch card ballots.

Voters leaving incompletely-punched holes resulted in partially-punched chads, where one or more corners were still attached, or dimpled chads where all corners were still attached, but an indentation appeared to have been made.

That wasn't the only issue with the 2000 elections though, there was also the Palm Beach debacle with the "Butterfly Ballot", which seemed to confuse many voters and produced an unexpectedly large number of votes for third-party candidate Patrick Buchanan.

The photo above is what a butterfly ballot looks like, there are names on both "wings" (sides) of the ballot and the punch holes are in the middle.

There were arrows in the box with the candidates name, pointing to the whole that was to be punched to cast the vote for that candidate, but that, somehow, confused some voters.

In the aftermath of the election, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed, it passed the house with a vote of 357-48 and 92-2 in the Senate and was signed into law by President Bush on October 29, 2002.

The purpose of HAVA was to help states upgrade their election technology in the hopes of preventing similar problems in future elections.

Which brings us to a November 1, 2004, National Geographic article that was already warning of potential problems with the new high-tech, ATM-like electronic voting machines that many states had adopted from their old paper ballot system.

But studies have shown that electronic voting machines are less reliable than paper ballots in accurately counting votes. The Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project, a study group set up to analyze elections dating back to 1988, found that old-fashioned lever machines were actually more accurate than electronic voting machines.

"That was a red flag for us, because when we started this project, we all felt that electronic voting was the solution," said Stephen Ansolabehere, an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) political science professor and former director of the project.

"We were shocked to see that ... electronic voting was not performing as well as hand-counted paper or optically scanned paper," he said.

At the time that piece was written, the manufacturers of the electronic voting machines had claimed that the problems had been fixed.

Evidently not.

Computerized machines lost votes, subtracted votes instead of adding them, and doubled votes. Because many of these machines have no paper audit trails, a large number of votes will never be counted. And while it is unlikely that deliberate voting-machine fraud changed the result of the presidential election, the Internet is buzzing with rumors and allegations of fraud in a number of different jurisdictions and races.

Further problems were also seen in 2004, in California, which resulted in a California County being sanctioned.

The case concerns the November 2004 elections in Alameda County, which featured a vote on the medical marijuana referendum "Measure R." When all the votes were finally counted, the initiative lost by less than 200 votes, and backers of the measure wanted a recount. When they looked into the election results, questions were raised about the electronic voting machines that the county used, and a lawsuit against the county was filed.

Instead of doing the obvious thing—hanging onto the voting machines in question—county officials shipped them back to Diebold, and the devices ended up in a Texas warehouse. Members of the plaintiff's legal team (which included the EFF), flew to Texas in an attempt to find the original audit logs still stored on the devices, but when they arrived at the warehouse, they found that most of the machines had already been wiped.

In 2006, on election day, 143 machines were broken, other machines had printer jams or mysteriously powered down, over 200 voter-card encoders — which create the cards that let voters vote — went missing and to make matters worse, some machines were producing errors in what the New York Times Magazine, in a 10 page article, written on January 6, 2008, called a "stunning rate".

One audit actually discovered that in 72.5 percent of the audited machines, the paper trail did not match the digital tally on the memory cards.

It starts with a woman, Jane Platten, on November 7 at 3 am and she had been working for 22 hours because the electronic voting machines, in Cleveland, were causing trouble again.

It goes on to discuss how things were believed to be going well in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. The voters came in and voted in lightly attended local elections, the voting staff had collected the electronic copies of the votes and took them to the main office where dozens of workers inside a secure, glass-encased room fed them into the “GEMS server,” a gleaming silver Dell desktop computer that tallies the votes.

That is when the trouble hit.

Then at 10 p.m., the server suddenly froze up and stopped counting votes. Cuyahoga County technicians clustered around the computer, debating what to do. A young, business-suited employee from Diebold — the company that makes the voting machines used in Cuyahoga — peered into the screen and pecked at the keyboard. No one could figure out what was wrong. So, like anyone faced with a misbehaving computer, they simply turned it off and on again. VoilĂ : It started working — until an hour later, when it crashed a second time. Again, they rebooted. By the wee hours, the server mystery still hadn’t been solved.

Worse was yet to come. When the votes were finally tallied the next day, 10 races were so close that they needed to be recounted. But when Platten went to retrieve paper copies of each vote — generated by the Diebold machines as they worked — she discovered that so many printers had jammed that 20 percent of the machines involved in the recounted races lacked paper copies of some of the votes. They weren’t lost, technically speaking; Platten could hit “print” and a machine would generate a replacement copy. But she had no way of proving that these replacements were, indeed, what the voters had voted. She could only hope the machines had worked correctly.

Jennifer Brunner, Ohio's secretary of state assigned Jane Platten to "clean up the mess" and by all accounts did an amazing job, with even the most vocal of critics of the touch-screen machines praising her and her efficiency.

It wasn't enough though, no matter how hard everyone tried, they could not get the hi-tech systems to work as they were intended for the Nov. 6 vote in Cuyahoga County and they were forced to discard much of their paper and simply trust that the machines had recorded the votes accurately in digital memory.

Machines malfunction, computers can crash, software can have bugs and printers jam, these are all problems that have proven, at least for Ohio's Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, that it is better to scrap the $21 million electronic touch-screen machines and to replace them with an optical-scan system, in which a computer scans ballots that voters fill out by hand.

With the optical-scan system, the voter pencils in her vote on a paper ballot, filling in bubbles to indicate which candidates she prefers. The vote is immediately tangible to the voters; they see it with their own eyes, because they personally record it. The tallying is done rapidly, because the ballots are fed into a computerized scanner. And if there’s a recount, the elections officials can simply take out the paper ballots and do it by hand.

When the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections deadlocked on the issue of scrapping the hi-tech machine for the optical system, Ms. Brunner broke the two -two tie to force the change.

The optical system is the next step but as the article reminds us at the end "Still, optical scanning is hardly a flawless system. If someone doesn’t mark a ballot clearly, a recount can wind up back in the morass of arguing over “voter intent.” The machines also need to be carefully calibrated so they don’t miscount ballots. Blind people may need an extra device installed to help them vote. Poorly trained poll workers could simply lose ballots. And the machines do, in fact, run software that can be hacked."

I leave you with the question I asked at the beginning of this article.

Has advanced technology helped our voting process or has it harmed it?