Mar 04 2008

E-Voting: Paper Makes a Comeback

Voting machine snafus lead many states to reconsider all-electronic voting.

In November 2007, residents of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, went to the polls to vote on the creation of a recreational district and several rezonings. It was a relatively minor election for the county, which includes Cleveland, and voter turnout was just 15 percent.

But as the polls closed and the county’s board of elections began tabulating the votes, they soon found that their new direct-recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen voting machines weren’t up to the task of handling even that light a turnout.

“The server just crashed repeatedly,” says Patrick Gallaway, director of communications within the Ohio secretary of state’s office, which is responsible for election oversight. “It couldn’t handle the volumes that the manufacturer said it should be able to handle, in terms of linking machines and pulling the results off.” Instead of speeding the process, Cuyohoga County’s machines could not produce a final vote result until nearly noon the day after the election, several hours later than the average time with the county’s old punch card system.

The DRE machines, which the state purchased from Premier Election Solutions (formerly Diebold), along with others from Hart InterCivic and Election Systems and Software, for $116 million two years ago, had other challenges as well. Cuyahoga County’s DRE machines were equipped with a Voter-Verified Paper Audit Trail (V-VPAT). Looking much like a cash register tape, the V-VPAT is a spool of paper inside the machine that records each vote cast on the DRE. Voters can view the V-VPAT through a window on the DRE to verify that the machine properly records their vote.

In fact, in Ohio, the V-VPAT is actually the official ballot for precincts using DREs. But there’s a problem. “That paper is flimsy,” Gallaway says. “It’s like a thermal paper, and in terms of durability and doing audits or recounts, it poses a lot of problems. The more someone handles it or touches it, the more the paper quality degrades.”

And not only is the paper quality poor, but it’s also difficult to print. “In November, Cuyahoga experienced issues where the paper would jam and then the ballot would be unreadable, and that’s a real problem, especially since the V-VPAT is the official ballot for Ohio,” Gallaway says. “We can’t have that.”

Rush to E-Voting

Ohio’s DRE problems are not unique. Since hanging chads and butterfly ballots threw Florida’s 2000 presidential election results into question, several states rushed to make changes, replacing antiquated lever and punch-card systems with new state-of-the-art DREs and optical-scan systems. In 2004, 4 percent of all U.S. jurisdictions reported using punch cards to record votes, while in 2006, that number dropped to barely 0.4 percent, according to a December 2007 report from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission in Washington, D.C.

Instead, most jurisdictions now use some kind of electronic voting equipment. Unfortunately, such systems are not a panacea, and as Cuyahoga County learned first-hand, many are less than reliable.

Another black mark against DREs and other types of voting machines is that they are difficult to use and manage, especially for many poll workers, who tend to be older and less tech-savvy. For example, in Horry County, S.C., which includes the cities of Myrtle Beach and North Myrtle Beach, voting machines were offline in 80 percent of the county's precincts during the recent presidential primaries in January, although only about four of the county's 118 precincts were without a working machine by 4 p.m on voting day. Poll workers attributed the malfunctions to “human error,” explaining that tests done before voting to ensure that all machines started at “0” votes were not conducted properly, forcing the machines to malfunction.

Paper Trail

With these incidents in mind, several states are beginning to backtrack a bit on e-voting. Many, like Ohio, are now requiring some kind of paper trail in addition to DRE results. In fact, nearly 27 states, including California, Illinois, New York and Ohio, now require a V-VPAT system on their DRE machines.

But Cuyahoga County now knows that’s still not enough. In mid-December, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner released the Evaluation & Validation of Election-Related Equipment, Standards & Testing (EVEREST) report, detailing problems with the state’s electronic voting apparatus.

Taking the EVEREST report into consideration, Cuyahoga County decided to scrap its DRE machines and instead move quickly to paper ballots and optical-scan machines in an effort to avoid problems during the March primaries. Although the moves are expected to cost the county $2.5 million for the purchase of 18 high-speed optical scanners and other equipment, the county hoped it would forestall any glitches.

Election Equipment

In 2004, just 9.3% of the jurisdictions reported using electronic voting equipment, but this increased to 53.6% two years later.

Type of Voting
Equipment Percentage of Jurisdictions Using Equipment
Optical scanners 42.7%
Electronic systems 53.6%
Lever machines 2.1%
Punch cards 0.4%
Paper 3.2%
Mixed 0.7%
Unknown 0.1%