NY Times: Editorial Observer: What's Wrong With My Voting Machine?

From: Arthur Keller <arthur_at_kellers_dot_org>
Date: Mon Dec 04 2006 - 03:34:30 CST


December 4, 2006
What's Wrong With My Voting Machine?
To the long list of recent Election Day horrors from butterfly
ballots to six-hour lines, add "vote flipping."
In Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and other states last month, there were
reports - some confirmed by election officials - that when voters
touched the screen for one candidate, the machine registered it for
another. One Florida Congressional race, in which the Republican won
by fewer than 400 votes, is in the courts because paperless
electronic voting machines may have failed to register as many as
18,000 votes.
This year's election had voters across the country once again asking
why voting machines are so lousy. Their technology is similar to
A.T.M. technology, but when was the last time your A.T.M. flipped a
$200 withdrawal into a $200 deposit?
Voting machines, unlike home electronics, are not sold in a
competitive consumer market, which is ruthlessly unforgiving of low
quality. The officials who buy them generally do not know much about
technology. They listen to sales pitches from vendors who
relentlessly push the most expensive models. Sometimes,
well-connected lobbyists apply pressure. The process is rife with
conflicts of interest, from free meals to future jobs with the
Since quality is not the deciding factor, it's not surprising there
isn't a lot of it.
Voters who complain about their own machines don't often get a chance
to compare them with other options. But New York's boards of
elections are replacing the old lever machines, and I recently went
to demonstrations the city held to allow the public to try out the
five finalists.
There are many important things about a voting machine you can't tell
from a quick inspection. But what was clear was almost all
disturbing. Here are the ratings:

Avante Touch-Screen (no stars)
This is one of two A.T.M.-like touch-screen machines in the running.
Even if they were reliable, touch-screens would not be practical for
populous areas. Configured to hold New York's ridiculously large
ballot, this five-foot-wide, 280-pound machine is so expensive, at
about $8,000, that there might be only one per polling place, and
lines could extend for hours. One machine I sampled cut off parts of
words. And the bottom half of the name of one of the political
parties was missing. A bigger problem is that this machine appears to
run afoul of a New York law requiring that all voting machine
computer code be given to the state. It runs on Windows, and
Microsoft keeps its code secret.

Sequoia Touch-Screen (no stars)
Like the Avante, this machine should be ruled out simply because it
is a touch-screen. But there is a lot more to dislike. The paper
records produced by a voting machine should be secured in a lockbox.
On this one, they fall into a small bag that could easily be
snatched. Not that a thief would need to bother. The bag has a zipper
on the bottom. Like Avante's, this touch-screen runs on Windows,
which probably means it cannot satisfy New York's code-sharing law.

Sequoia Optical Scan (no stars)
With optical scans, many voters can fill out paper ballots at the
same time. They are then fed into an optical scan reader, which goes
very quickly. Unfortunately, this machine has other problems. Instead
of blackening an oval next to their choice, voters connect a broken
arrow. I have filled in thousands of ovals, but I had never before
connected a broken arrow. As we saw with the butterfly ballot in
2000, the voting machine is not a good place to ask voters to acquire
new skills. New York law requires that candidates of the same party
be listed in a single column, to make it easier to vote by party.
This machine scatters candidates of the same party all over the

Diebold Optical Scan *
When I fed my ballot into this machine, it jammed twice. The sales
representative expressed shock, but this is a frequently heard
complaint. Even a balky optical scan is better than a touch-screen,
but how hard is it to make one that doesn't jam?
Diebold has been the most infamous name in elections since its chief
executive wrote that he was committed to helping deliver Ohio to
President Bush, in an election in which his machines were counting
the votes. The company has a long list of misdeeds, including
installing unapproved and uncertified software in California.

ES&S Optical Scan *1/2 (1.5 stars)
This seemed like the best of the five machines on display, but that
wasn't saying much. ES&S machines were used in Florida's 13th
Congressional District, where they are still looking for the 18,000
votes that may have gone missing.
New York's official testing agencies notified election officials last
week that none of these five machines fully meet the state's
standards. New York has been the slowest state to adopt new voting
machines, and the fact that the manufacturers were displaying
products that still did not comply with state law says a lot about
the basic level of competence in the industry.
No one in New York has much patience for more delay. But if it comes
down to waiting longer or sticking voters with illegal or unreliable
machines that will undermine democracy for years to come, officials
should wait, and insist on better machines. New Yorkers, and all
Americans, deserve better choices than the voting machine industry is

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Arthur M. Keller, Ph.D., 3881 Corina Way, Palo Alto, CA  94303-4507
tel +1(650)424-0202, fax +1(650)424-0424

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