Monday, January 22, 2007

Optical scan voting technology for Maryland

Shazia Anwar, director of the election technology reform group, wrote last week that the coming Maryland legislative session will be "the best political environment yet to get a good voter verified paper audit trail bill passed. Recent comments by various legislator leaders indicate that they intend to address the issue of a voter verified paper audit trail in the coming session."

In keeping with former governor Bob Ehrlich's skepticism about electronic voting, Republican leadership seems to be on board with making a change, judging by comments made by a party spokeswoman to AP's Kristen Wyatt and printed in Annapolis' The Capital in late December:
"The problem with the electronic voting machines is there is no way to recount any votes," [Audra] Miller said. Paper ballots or voting receipts "will give voters some semblance of assurance their vote was counted properly," she said.
The same article reports that House Speaker Mike Busch "said some sort of nonelectronic backup is certain" and quotes him saying that "We will deal with a verifiable paper trail." A January 2 Baltimore Sun article by Melissa Harris notes that newly elected Governor Martin O'Malley has "formed a team to study what do about problems with the Maryland's electronic voting system." Even Senate President Mike Miller (D) is a newly converted voice for change:
Miller said in an interview with The Sun last week that the legislature was considering the possibility of adding a paper trail to the state's touch-screen machines, which computer scientists and others have argued would reduce the chances of someone hacking into and tampering with election results.

"The reason we didn't move forward immediately last year was the cost factor," Miller said.
As suggested by Miller's comments, there's a lot of inertia for sticking with Diebold in some fashion. According to Harris, O'Malley's team was discussing three options: retrofitting current Diebold equipment with printers, switching to later model Diebold equipment with printers, or abandoning the current relationship with Diebold and switching to optical scan of paper ballots.

While any of these options would be welcome progress, I agree with TrueVoteMD that optical scan voting technology is preferable. As the Sun article points out, sticking with Diebold would once again make Maryland voters the guinea pigs in Linda Lamone's and Diebold's election day experiment/fiascos. First, other than a prototype, there's no retrofit option available yet for the current voting machine model. And second, no one else has yet adopted Diebold's newer voting machines featuring printers. As TrueVoteMD's director Shazia Anwar wrote in an e-mail last week:
The best solution to our current voting problems is to implement a precinct-based optical scanner system with a ballot-marking device for disabled voters. This will ensure the creation of a paper record of your vote that will be the official record during a mandatory audit and any recount. Computer experts and election reform advocates agree that this is the most secure system available, and it is also the most fiscally responsible solution, since it would require less machines (2000 optical scanners and 2000 ballot marking devices versus 24,000 electronic voting machines + printers) and thus less operating costs for our counties.
Have a look at TrueVoteMD's comparison of touch-screen voting machines fitted with printers versus optical scan technology. Among the drawbacks of touch screen-plus-printer:
  • Replacing our current machines with a newer model that has a paper trail would be expensive, and the printers have major problems [...]
  • Touch-screen voting machines require about 10 times more equipment than optical scanners, so annual operating costs are significantly higher. [...]
  • Thermal print-outs are not durable enough to serve as the legal record of a vote. They smear, fade, discolor or disappear quickly. They are also fragile, easily torn, and cannot withstand the repeated handling necessary for audits and recounts.

Among the advantages of optical scan technology (emphases in original):
  • Disabled voters can use a ballot-marking device or telephone-based interface that enables them to mark a ballot compatible with an optical-scan system.
  • During peak voting hours, the number of voters who can vote simultaneously is limited only by the amount of space available in the polling place to mark a ballot privately. Cardboard privacy screens are inexpensive and easy to store and transport.
  • Equipment failure does not prevent voters from casting ballots, because they can be stored for counting later if necessary.
Moreover, any problems with "fixed" Diebold voting machines -- printer jams, lack of paper, etc. -- are liable to make people blame that fix instead of the assumption that touch screen voting constitutes "progress."

The single acknowledged drawback for optical scan is that it will require larger printing runs for the required paper ballots, while the comparison acknowledges the "high tech" feel and the possibility of paper trail voter verification for touch screen-plus-printers. As TrueVote's suggested letter to legislators puts it:
Sometimes the most high-tech solution is not necessarily the best solution. Will you join us in working for a better solution for MD's voting system that will ensure more reliable election results while also allowing our counties to spend our tax dollars more wisely on the urgent needs that impact our daily lives? Please support the call for a change to a paper audit trail voting system by switching to a Precinct-based Optical Scan System so that we can have an accurate and verifiable system in place before the 2008 Presidential Election.
If you live in Maryland, I hope you'll consider clicking through to this letter and sending it.

CROSSPOSTED from newsrack
NOTE: AP/The Capital and Baltimore Sun items via TrueVoteMD.


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