Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The End of the Mechanical Voting Era

By the time you read this post you've either voted, on your way to vote or not going to vote at all.
 If you have voted, depending on where you are,  you may have voted  via arduous paper ballots  aided by scanners and special pens, fancy up to date Touch-screen machines or older electronic versions of the same. Depending on your current State, some machines will provide you with a Voter verified paper record, some will not.
 Upon entering their usual polling station,  New Yorkers will notice the absence of the Mechanical Hand Lever Machine and will vote instead  on a ES & S DS200 Ballot Scanner able to read and tally a paper ballot marked with a very special marking pen. Or they may vote via an ES AutoMark.
Voters in 16 states are using  electronic voting equipment which do not provide a voters verification receipt of any kind. There is absolutely no paper trail  if discrepancy arises.  One does not have to be a statistician, or number cruncher to know paper trails are crucial for validity.
 These machines are known as direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines purchased from companies like Sequoia and Diebold.
On October 25th, 2012 President Obama cast his ballot on a 15 inch touchscreen Sequoia AVC edge, and being that he voted in Illinois, he was provided with a Verification of his vote.

So here comes the debate... Mechanical vs Electronic. Sounds a little like the luxury watch debate, but unlike luxury mechanical watches which pulled through the "quartz scare" of the 1970's when quartz watches almost extinguished mechanical watches, the trusty Mechanical Hand Lever voting machines of the 1960's did not survive the new electronic voting systems.  A push to change the individual voting process to the electronic age was made by Congress in 2002 with the "Help America Vote Act", which spent $3.9 billion on assisting states to disown the mechanical voting way.

In 2010, New York City was the last to give up the Mechanical Lever Voting Machine - which according to Forbes Staffer, Frederick E. Allen  - seems not to have been the best idea. Read " New York's New Voting System is a Disaster" .

The Mechanical Lever Voting Machine was used when JFK beat Richard M. Nixon by 0.1% where over half of the 56 million voters cast their ballots with this method. The Mechanical Lever Voting Machine has an array of levers in the front of the machine, each candidate is assigned a particular lever which is marked with the candidates name by a strip of paper. The levers are Horizontal in the unvoted position. The entire machine is situated inside a privacy curtain. The voter pulls down the lever and exits the curtain, the lever automatically returns to its horizontal position. As the lever returns, a connected counter wheel turns one-tenth of a full rotation, the tens counter drives a hundreds counter. At the end of election day, the counter for that lever indicated the amount of votes cast for that ballot. If the Mechanical Lever Voting Machine is in good working condition, it is quite reliable in that the machine is simple and a voter will have less of a chance of "pulling the lever in error" than touching a screen. However these machines are no longer being manufactured . Most states have opted for the newer more efficient electronic touch screens or direct recording electronic machines.

While many election officials rushed to embrace the new voting technology, especially those subjected to peering at Chads from punch card ballots, many people are skeptical of the security and the reliability of the electronic systems. Many of the electronic systems are unverified. In West Virginia, Colorado, Tennessee and Texas voters have reported that in the past  touch screen machines registered their vote for the wrong party or candidate. Some say the electronic systems may be susceptible to hackers. Many electronic machines do not produce a hard copy of the votes cast making it almost impossible to verify disputed results. Some touch-screen equipment used in half of Ohio's 88 counties "dropped" votes in past election when memory cards were uploaded to computer servers. Others say these electronic machines can be easily manipulated.

Hanging Chad
There two major flaws in the "Help America Vote Act":

1) No paper trails required - this issue has turned from a DRE debate to an outright "DRE war"
2) No rules requiring electronic equipment replacement.  Thus outdated electronic equipment  from a decade ago are still approved for 2012 elections.  These decade old voting systems do not provide a voters receipt.

The DRE system is wrought with  problems such as electronic malfunctions, purposeful flipping of votes or vanishing votes.
In 2010 primary and general New York State Elections, overheating of a  New York City's South Bronx machine invalidated hundreds of votes because the machine misread the optically scanned ballots.  Would that have happened with the good old Mechanical Lever Voting Machine?

When a place like New York City or any other large city votes, its is almost impossible to prove a voting error; however, at a local election in a tiny NJ County like Cumberland, glitches can be glaring even without a paper trail.
When this occurred, the rightful "victors" became the "losers".
  28 voters signed affidavits that they had voted for the losing party; however, oddly the Sequoia AVC Advantage machine showed only 10 voters cast a ballot for the losers.  The court ordered the election to be tossed out and a new election conducted.  Of course this is impossible in a National Presidential Election where voters must assume their voice is heard.
States like Maine test and retest the machines for reliability.  An excellent procedure assuming integrity of all individuals involved.

On the flip side who can forget the unfortunate "hanging chad" saga  smothering the 2000 elections in a cloud of uncertain confetti. It was after these elections that the Federal Government pushed for the electronic systems; however concerns of security breaches and tainted numbers shadow the electronic voting era.

States like Maryland and New Jersey are well aware of the implications of a paperless voting system and have even passed laws requiring a paper copy, but budget constraints have hampered the paper copy from becoming a reality. In Virginia ,a hot battleground state, passed this law too, but as a result of its large financial burden, the law was overturned.

33 states now require a Voter Verified Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) or a Verified Paper Record (VPR) and 16 states do not.  States that do not have paperless machine and thus no independent proof of vote cast are:
 Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia

Machines that have an audit or paper trail include:

AccuVote TSX with printer
AVC Edge with VeriVote Printer
Sequoia Voting Systems' Edge2Plus
Sequoia Voting Systems' AdvantagePlus
 eSlate with Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail
IVotronic Real Time Audit Log

It is going to be an interesting Election and in light of this post, I hope that the voting goes well with as few hitches as possible. Of course the good old Mechanical relics will  be sorely missed as New York State stands in line to vote for the next President of the United States.

By: V. Van Halem

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