Ramblings & ephemera

The latest on electronic voting machines

From James Turner’s interview with Dr. Barbara Simons, past President of the Association for Computing Machinery & recent appointee to the Advisory Board of the Federal Election Assistance Commission, at “A 2008 e-Voting Wrapup with Dr. Barbara Simons” (O’Reilly Media: 7 November 2008):

[Note from Scott: headers added by me]

Optical Scan: Good & Bad

And most of the voting in Minnesota was done on precinct based optical scan machines, paper ballot which is then fed into the optical scanner at the precinct. And the good thing about that is it gives the voter immediate feedback if there is any problem, such as over-voting, voting twice for a candidate.

Well there’s several problems; one is–well first of all, as you say because these things have computers in them they can be mis-programmed, there can be software bugs. You could conceivably have malicious code. You could have the machines give you a different count from the right one. There was a situation back in the 2004 race where Gephardt in one of the Primaries–Gephardt received a large number of votes after he had withdrawn from the race. And this was done–using paper ballots, using optical scan paper ballots. I don’t know if it was this particular brand or not. And when they were recounted it was discovered that in fact that was the wrong result; that he had gotten fewer votes. Now I never saw an explanation for what happened but my guess is that whoever programmed these machines had mistakenly assigned the slot that was for Kerry to Gephardt and the slot that was for Gephardt to Kerry; that’s my guess. Now I don’t know if that’s true but if that did happen I think there’s very little reason to believe it was malicious because there was really nothing to be gained by doing that. So I think it was just an honest error but of course errors can occur.

DRE Studies

Ohio conducted a major study of electronic voting machines called the Everest Study which was commissioned by the current Secretary of State Bruner, Secretary of State Bruner and this study uncovered huge problems with these–with most of these voting systems, these touch screen voting systems. They were found to be insecure, unreliable, difficult to use; basically a similar study had been studied in California not too much earlier called the Top to Bottom Review and the Ohio study confirmed every–all of the problems that had been uncovered in California and found additional problems, so based on that there was a push to get rid of a lot of these machines.

States Using DREs

Maryland and Georgia are entirely touch screen States and so is New Jersey. In Maryland they’re supposed to replace them with optical scan paper ballots by 2010 but there’s some concern that there may not be the funding to do that. In fact Maryland and Georgia both use Diebold which is now called Premier, paperless touch screen voting machines; Georgia started using them in 2002 and in that race, that’s the race in which Max Cleveland, the Democratic Senator, paraplegic from–the Vietnam War Vet was defeated and I know that there are some people who questioned the outcome of that race because the area polls had showed him winning. And because that race–those machines are paperless there was no way to check the outcome. Another thing that was of a concern in Maryland in 2002 was that–I mean in Georgia in 2002 was that there were last minute software patches being added to the machines just before the Election and the software patches hadn’t really been inspected by any kind of independent agency.

More on Optical Scans

Well I think scanned ballots–well certainly scanned ballots give you a paper trail and they give you a good paper trail. The kind of paper trail you want and it’s not really a paper trail; it’s paper ballots because they are the ballots. What you want is you want it to be easy to audit and recount an election. And I think that’s something that really people hadn’t taken into consideration early on when a lot of these machines were first designed and purchased.


One of the things that was investigated in California when they did the Top to Bottom Review was just how easy is it for people with disabilities to use these touch screen machines? Nobody had ever done that before and these test results came back very negatively. If you look at the California results they’re very negative on these touch screen machines. In many cases people in wheelchairs had a very difficult time being able to operate them correctly, people who were blind sometimes had troubles understanding what was being said or things were said too loudly or too softly or they would get confused about the instructions or some of the ways that they had for manual inputting; their votes were confusing.

There is a–there are these things called Ballot Generating Devices which are not what we generally refer to as touch screen machines although they can be touch screen. The most widely used one is called the Auto Mark. And the way the Auto Mark works is you take a paper ballots, one of these optical scan ballots and you insert it into the Auto Mark and then it operates much the same way that these other paperless–potentially paperless touch screen machines work. It has a headphone–headset so that a blind voter can use it; it has–it’s possible for somebody in a wheelchair to vote, although in fact you don’t have to use this if you’re in a wheelchair; you can vote optical scan clearly. Somebody who has severe mobility impairments can vote on these machines using a sip, puff device where if you sip it’s a zero or one and if you puff it’s the opposite or a yes or a no. And these–the Auto Mark was designed with disability people in mind from early on. And it faired much better in the California tests. What it does is at the end when the voter with disabilities is finished he or she will say okay cast my ballot. At that point the Auto Mark simply marks the optical scan ballot; it just marks it. And then you have an optical scan ballot that can be read by an optical scanner. There should be no problems with it because it’s been generated by a machine. And you have a paper ballot that can be recounted.

Problems with DREs vs Optical Scans

One of the things to keep in–there’s a couple things to keep in mind when thinking about replacing these systems. The first is that these direct recording electronic systems or touch screen systems as they’re called they have to have–the States and localities that buy these systems have to have maintenance contracts with the vendors because they’re very complicated systems to maintain and of course the software is a secret. So some of these contracts are quite costly and these are ongoing expenses with these machines. In addition, because they have software in them they have to be securely stored and they have to be securely delivered and those create enormous problems especially when you have to worry about delivering large numbers of machines to places prior to the election. Frequently these machines end up staying in people’s garages or in churches for periods of time when they’re relatively insecure.

And you need far fewer scanners; the security issues with scanners are not as great because you can do an audit and a recount, so altogether it just seems to me that moving to paper based optical scan systems with precinct scanners so that the voter gets feedback on the ballot if the voter votes twice for President; the ballot is kicked out and the voter can vote a new ballot.

And as I say there is the Auto Mark for voters with disabilities to use; there’s also another system called Populex but that’s not as widely used as Auto Mark. There could be new systems coming forward.

1/2 of DREs Broken in Pennsylvania on Election Day

Editor’s Note: Dr. Simons wrote me later to say: “Many Pennsylvania polling places opened on election day with half or more of their voting machines broken — so they used emergency paper ballots until they could fix their machines.”

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