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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Optical Scan Among Five Voting Choices Provided to Three Pa. Counties

If the New York Times Magazine is right, Pennsylvania will be the "next Florida," focal point of our next electoral storm. Whether that prediction is true or not, people are paying attention. At yesterday's public demonstration of five different voting systems, the training room was packed with concerned members of the public, local party officials, reporters, elections commission members, and at least four members of a Northampton County Council that now has just one day to make a decision. Representatives of Wayne and Lackawanna County were also present.

County Exec John Stoffa sat forlornly in the back of the room, and was probably asking himself, "How the hell did this mess happen?"

I felt like I was looking at the few items left on the shelves on Christmas Eve, when I do most of my shopping. It's a very limited choice. I listened to the presentations, but missed the questions from the public. Fortunately, Dottie Niklos stuck around, tested each machine, and was kind enough to share her views. I'll let you know what she thinks about each system.

1. Sequoia Advantage D-10: (state certification contains restrictions). Colorado, concerned about reliability, decertified this system in December. Dottie's take: My first choice would be the Sequoia. It has a screen identical to our lever machines, but lights up when a candidate is selected. It supplies an internal paper trail of the vote for verification, and can be retrofitted with a cut and drop paper ballot that is seen by the voter before vote confirmation . The write-in option is a keyboard and enters the printed name in the box on the screen for verification by the voter. This machine, like all the others, does an auto tally and stores the tally and vote history electronically. BUT this machine is electronic and not networked so that there is no software necessary. This is an advantage because it cannot be hacked. Availability? A mix of new and refurbished.

2. ES & S iVotronic: (state certification contains restrictions)
This is the state's biggest supplier of voting machines, servicing thirty-six counties. But in 2006, ES&S was plagued by complaints of poor quality control (faulty memory cards), poor service, and problems with election preparation. In a Florida congressional race, there was an 18,000 undervote. But that's not what bothers me most. According to a Colorado report, this voting machine can be disabled by simply running a magnet across the touch-screen. Wired reports that, with nothing more than a magnet and a palm pilot or cell phone, you can prevent voters from voting for specific candidates or cause the machine to secretly record a voter's vote for a different candidate than the one the voter chose. Colorado has decertified this system. Dottie's take: The ESS has several features, such as the disc packet, that has to be entered. That makes errors by poll workers a distinct possibility. The loading of the machine seems less than efficient and it would appear that the transfer of data is manual, especially for absentees. Availabilty? Only "reconditioned" machines.

3. Hart InterCivic e-Scan & Hart InterCivic e-Slate: (state certification granted). Most of us agree that optically scanned ballots are the best available voting technology. The voter can see for herself that her ballot is cast, and there's a paper copy. But this system has an Ethernet port on the back, and guess what? That's right, bippy, you can just jack into that port and rewrite the recorded votes. Wheee! Colorado just dumped this system, too. Dottie's take: The Hart Machines are interesting, BUT the scanners can pick up stray marks invalidate the ballot or register the vote incorrectly. This just seems like hanging chads to me. It also requires that a touch screen be at each location for the visually impaired. Availability? Brand spankin' new.

4. Danaher ELECTronic 1242: (state certification granted). This system, another lever machine imitation, has been around since 1986. It has all kinds of goofy flashing red lights, too. At one point during the demo, I could swear I heard someone say, "You sunk my battleship!" Incidentally, this is the machine that gave Bush thousands of extra votes in Ohio. Dottie's take: The electec is a familiar screen, but it is large and cumbersome in comparison to others, and uses Microsoft software. It also uses a pop open panel for hand written votes for the write in which is not as easily managed as the keyboard. Availability? A mix of new and refurbished.

5. Diebold (now Premier) AccuVote TSX: (state certification granted with restrictions) This is one of the few systems that passed the recent testing in Colorado. But it was just declared vulnerable in Ohio, and will be phased out. Yes, this is what you bastards in Lehigh County use. Thanks to you, we all know it can't take a hammer shot. One member of council likes this machine. Dottie's take: "The Diebold looked fragile and somewhat complicated to administer and to use for some voters." Dottie, are you saying we're dumber than Lehigh County voters? Availability? Brand new!

I wish we had a bigger selection. Although four optical scanning systems have been certified, only one was demonstrated yesterday. What about the others?

The citizens' advisory panel that studied our elections last year made this recommendation in its final report: "The County should both advocate and prepare for the purchase and use of voting machines that generate a voter-verifiable paper trail." If we follow that advice, we should take a closer look Hart's E-Scan. Former elections commissioner Lilly Gioia warns that Hart's offering may result in stray marks, and she may be right. But it's also clear that optical scanning is the only way to create a true paper trail.


Anonymous said...

reagrding the (Premier) Diebold Machines..I do no think that NORCO voters are dumber than Lehigh Co voters, but I do think it is more difficult to manuever and more intimidating to all of those seniors who are more familiar with the format of the Seqouia. They are our most reliable voting block and I have seen them really turned off by the sight of a computer screen and this one had lots of periferral gadgets that can confuse the less tech savy voter.

Anonymous said...

having used the diebold for the last couple of election cycles i have found them easy to use very straight forward. but the older folks need to be trained. education is the key (gee sounds like the school system).
most older folks i talked to seemed to like the diebold once they overcame their fear.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Dottie, Looks like most people who looked at the machines, share your view.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review!

Unfortunately, all computerized voting machines are subject to invisible tampering, including the Sequioa. Without a record of the voter's vote, there is no way to audit or to re-count.

As Bernie says, the only way to be sure of counting the voter's intent, is to have the voter fill out a paper ballot.

With any optical scan system, there must be a statistically valid audit to make sure that the machines have counted correctly. This is impossible with touchscreens, even those which can excrete a receipt-style paper record. The paper receipt may or may not reflect how the internal software actually counted the vote.

My vote is for hand counted paper ballots. They are cheaper and more accurate.

Unknown said...

Excellent reviewing, Dottie. Very meticulous.

Please note that when you report things such as "cut and drop is available" for Sequoia, you are referring to a technology that has not yet been completed, thus has not been tested, has not yet been put through federal "certification" ($100,000+ and time elapsed), has not yet been "certified" by the Commonwealth.

Thus this is another example of promising the moon. Allegheny County put away $2 million for printers promised to be developed, but none of the companies is currently doing any R&D to develop them. Nor are the DRE makers doing anything toward further accessibility which is now way overdue according to HAVA.

The reason they are not showing you the optical scan machines is that they want to sell the flimsy, breachable DRE machines. These are their cash cow - expensive to maintain, expensive to support, and all the money goes straight to the vendor for many years to come. And, too, they will need new software because of all the decertifications in other states, and we'll have to pay them to develop and install it.

Optical scan is much less expensive to use. Precinct-counted optical scan is the best of the scan systems, because it will immediately tell the voter whether there is an undervote or an overvote. If the ballot goes to a central scanner, there is no chance for an overvote ballot, for example, to be fixed by the voter, it is just thrown out.

Early on, I was an advocate of the only decent DRE system, AccuPoll. It is now not available, and likely will not be for at least a couple years, even though it was the best in all respects. (Lies and subterfuge and influence buying killed it and also Pennsylvania's chance to gain revenue from it, but that's another story.)

Go for optical scan! Make the companies show you what they have. I believe ES&S's M650 precinct count is the best on the market. I say that even though I do not trust their tabulating system, which is the same as the one used with the iVotronics.

Please, please, read the reports referenced on the VoteAllegheny org website's outside links page. We've done this legwork already, and were not snowed by the vendors' snakeoil salesmen.

As I have said, we applaud your Counties' intentions in having a voting fair with public input, but we have a major caveat to convey.

Having a voting fair and discussing systems with vendors, then making a decision based on economics and first impressions - presuming all the systems to be equal - is a lot like planning to buy a car, going to a used car dealer and listening to his canned spiel about the cars, and then choosing the cheapest one, regardless of anything but price and without outside research or consulting anyone else. Maybe the color of the car figures in, but price is more important. The car salesman grins, rubs his hands together, and promises the moon.

We have watched most of the counties in Pennsylvania do exactly this, and now they are laboring under their bad decisions or soon will be paying far too much additional money for their choices. I live in Allegheny County, and we have a multitude of experts here (computer scientists, lawyers, et al.) providing research and information to folks across the state and the country, yet over and over decisions have been made by only consulting with the vendors' representatives, or worse by only staff persons consulting with vendors. Then the voters take a test drive like a bunch of teenagers, and the deal is made.

Please do not let your counties make a hasty decision; please do some research ahead and make an educated choice. We want to assist you in any way possible.

Chris Casey said...

Perhaps we should ask for a thumbprint like they did in the Iraqi elections. Better yet, why not a blood and urine sample, and have the machine check voter DNA?
They should have called it the "Help Screw American Voters Act" We have perfectly good, working mechanical machines, but because Florida was home to Katherine "Tammy Fay" Harris in 2000, the rest of us suffer.
I still say that HAVA was executed in a manner such as putting a new engine in a car that had a broken odometer

Unknown said...

HAVA was written by Bob Ney of Ohio. He was friendly with the Urosevich brothers, each of whom was president of a voting system vendor - one at Diebold, one at ES&S. They stood to gain the lion's share of the $4 billion in the bill that Mr. Ney wrote.

Mr. Ney is now in jail. 'Nuf said on that.

There were dirty dealings all over the place. Note that the big three machine vendors are contributors to the nonprofit Election Center, which "teaches" our election officials at seminars "about" electronic machines, and how we don't need no stinkin' paper records.

Note that those same big three regularly sponsor dinners - pheasant under glass, one year - for the National Association of Secretaries of State conventions. They are "members" of NACo. Talk about being in bed with someone.

When influence buying was requested, they were ready to do it, because they hadn't spent anything on R&D. I note that while Sequoia was asking for a $12 million contract from Allegheny County, the whole entire company was sold to a Venezuelan entity for $20 million.

AccuPoll made a brand new product for this purpose, designed to be the best. They started a public company, sold stock. They set out to sell, only to find all these dirty deals going on. I myself heard lies about their product from elections division workers in certain counties in this state, repeating what they were told by the other systems' vendors.

If we got the whole state to commit to a contract and gave them up front some money to start the company back up, then maybe we could have AccuPoll voting systems. We should have bought from them to begin with, as they were using Unisys as their eastern-US distributor and we could have had a lot of tax revenue when other states followed our lead. But that's for the past and the future.

At the moment, the best deal is with ES&S M650 optical scan with AutoMark ballot markers for accessibility, with 5% random audits every election. Period.

Please go tell someone making this decision.

Anonymous said...

Opti scan is far from truley secure and it is not less expensive
when yo consider that you must also supply a scanning machine with audio capability at the same location (to accomodate the visually impaired)

I too would like paper ballot, BUT it is not HAVA certified.

In reality the Seqouia uses hardware and firm ware but no software, so it will truly take screwdrivers and implements of destruction to tamper with it. It als saves 2 internal aperrolls tat can be compared to the accumulated electronic count.

Bernie O'Hare said...


You might be right on the money. I just want to thank you for the time you spent in looking at each of the systems and forwarding your assessments of each.

If we want to get real, no system is perfect.

The paper ballots that are loved by Dr. Brau were part of a system in which there were many accusations of stuffing the ballot box, and bags of paper votes were lost. It is also time-consuming.

The lever machines, which we all love, fail to preserve individual votes. That makes recounts difficult.

The punch card system was fine until we ran into hanging chads and questions of voter intent.

The DRE touchscreens are computers that are full of all the problems that any computer scientist could predict. The lack of a matching paper trail is a problem, and even when a printer is installed, it will jam.

Optical scanning is the current trend. it's easy to do recounts with them, and there's an obvious paper back up. The problem with them are those stray marks, which could lead to questions of voter intent, as you so astutely mentioned.

In truth, there is no silver bullet out there. Every system has inherent weaknesses. But what I dislike most about the DREs is the lack of local control and reliance on outside vendors who don't share codes and who are more interested in profits than admitting errors.

I think the future trend will be to optical scanning. It's technology is unsophisticated, and if someone hacks the scanned results, the paper back up will show that. It should be a simple matter for local offices to become quite proficient in their use. In one Fl county that uses them, things have really improved.

Whatever decision is reached tomorrow, it appears that everyone is taking this seriously and is trying to make the best possible choice. Right now, most people I have spoken to pretty much agree with your assessment.

Anonymous said...

can't we just go back to circling pictures of the people we want to vote for on paper

WhetherVain said...

Yeah! GREAT IDEA! The visually impaired just love to circle pictures!

But then again, with pictures, we could do away with multi-lingual ballots!

Anonymous said...

Memo to County leadership: Don't screw it up this time!

Bernie O'Hare said...

Memo to County leadership: Don't screw it up this time!

That's great. now which of the five systems would you pick and why??

I would oppose the iVotronic, and that's the state's biggest supplier. It's too easily disabled.

Dottie makes a good case for the Sequoia, and I like the optical scanner. But which is the right pick?

Anonymous said...

Voters can't win with any of these