Voting Machines Demonstration
I received a letter from the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners inviting me to attend a demonstration of new voting equipment. Two sessions were held, the first at Meremac Community College on Thursday, August 25th, 2005, and the second at Florissant Valley Community College on Friday, August 26th, 2005. Both sessions were scheduled from 11 AM to 3 PM, and I attended the Friday session at Florissant Valley.
The demonstrations were actually held as a mock election, and I learned after I arrived that many of the people attending were poll workers who had not seen the new equipment. Quite a few people were senior citizens invited through special interest groups, due to the need to test for handicapped access. I was invited by virtue of being a Libertarian Party township committeeman, and all the township committeemen and committeewomen of the Democratic, Republican, and Libertarian county organizations were invited. Although the college campus had classes and plenty of students, I did not see more than one or two participating in the Mock Election. Even though I received an invitation, the demonstration was open to anybody who wanted to participate. I was able to vote using seven systems by four vendors in an hour and fifteen minutes.
I went in with some prejudices, since I do not have any real technical problems with the punch card voting system which has been used by St. Louis County since 1975. The punch card system is the least expensive automated system, but the Federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed after the Florida recount controversy in the 2000 Presidential election, is putting pressure on all counties in the United States to convert from punch card and manual systems. Going in, I thought I would probably favor optical scan systems, because the equipment should be less expensive while still providing paper ballots for recounts.
There were four vendors represented, in two large training rooms. The first vendor equipment I tried was Diebold, which had an optical scan system and a touch-screen computer system called Accu-Vote. I subsequently learned that the ballots were virtually identical across all vendors and systems.
The Diebold optical scan system seemed easy enough, although I was a little stumped that one of the ballot questions asked how easy it was to read the screen. I had no difficulty reading the paper ballot for the Diebold optical scan system, even though they had the smallest ballot at 8-1/2 inches by 11 inches. I filled in my ovals with a pen supplied by the pollworkers, although any ball-point pen or felt tip pen with blue or blank ink should work. I was impressed by how quickly the validating machine was able to read the 8-1/2 by 11 ballot. I did a write in vote for my favorite color, but did not attempt an overvote or undervote. Based on what the vendor representatives said, the validating machine would reject any ballot with an overvote, but it would accept any ballot with undervotes. The validator also counts the accepted ballots, which fall directly into a locked ballot box.
The second system I tried was the Diebold Accu-Vote touch screen system. This required a pollworker to give me a chip card (similar to a credit card) as a key to allow one voter to fill out a ballot. The keycard must be run through a machine to enable it, and it can only be used one time, until it is re-enabled by a pollworker.
The Diebold touch screen had a couple of nice options. There was an icon to increase the font size on the screen for readability, and another icon, named "high contrast" to change the print from multi-colored to black letters on a white background. It quickly became obvious that it is impossible to overvote on a touch screen, and the machine allows write-in votes by bringing up an image of keyboard where you "type" in your write-in selection. Finishing up was a little confusing, since the machine will not let you cast a ballot without first warning you of any undervotes, and then asking if you want to review your ballot. If you decide to review your ballot, you can go back and change any vote. When you are finally done, you must confirm that you want to cast your ballot.
Generally, the machine was fairly easy to learn, but the keycard security requirement would probably create some delays if lines are long. I think the optical scan is a little faster because it does not have a similar step. Also, any touch-screen machine with a roll of paper will be down for several minutes if the paper tape has to be changed.
The second vendor was Populex, and they had a touch screen system that was quite different from all the others. They give you a blank paper ballot, which must be inserted in the touch screen machine, as well as a keycard. The screen on the Populex system was the smallest I tried, and it was almost horizontal, which was not quite so good for privacy or comfort. Also, you could not select anything by touching the screen with your finger, you had to use a light pen connected to the machine with a cable. Write-in voting is supported with a popup keyboard screen. Once you have completed voting and confirmed your selections, they are printed on the paper ballot in a barcode that I could not read. No votes are stored in the Populex touchscreen machine itself. You must then return your keycard to the pollworker, and you take the printed ballot and scan it under red light on a counting machine. Finally, you drop the ballot into the ballot box.
I really like the idea of a paper ballot generated by the touch screen computer, but the light pen and the extra steps for inserting, removing, and scanning the paper ballot seemed like it would take extra time. Populex did not demonstrate a plain paper optical scan system like Diebold or the other vendors. Based on the complexity of the system (inserting both a keycard and a blank paper ballot) and the lack of privacy and uncomfortable posture with the horizontal screen, the Populex system would be my last choice. But I was able to use it, and to cast a write-in vote and a deliberate undervote. Like the other touch screen systems, it was impossible to overvote with the Populex system.
The next vendor was Sequoia. They had an optical scan system similar to Diebold, but the paper ballot was larger, about 11 inches by 14 inches, and instead of filling in an oval, you make a selection by drawing a line to connect two arrows. I liked this approach because it was quicker to mark a selection by drawing a line than by coloring in an oval. The paper ballot had a pre-printed example of how to mark a selection, which made the transition painless. Like Diebold, Sequoia also had a validator machine that scanned the entire ballot in less than one second, and if there were no overvotes the ballot dropped into a locked ballot box.
At least one of the vendors had a button on their optical scan validator to confirm you wanted to cast your validated ballot, but I have forgotten which one it was.
Sequoia also had a touch screen system that was similar to Diebold's, but without an option for larger print. Once you cast your ballot it printed your selections on a sealed paper tape. You can read this tape through a window, but it stays with the machine, and it provides an audit trail for recount purposes.
The last vendor was ES&S (Election Systems and Software). I tried their optical scan system first, which used a large ballot like Sequoia, but you filled in the traditional oval like Diebold, instead of drawing a line between two arrows. They also had a validator machine for the optical scan ballots. The last system I tried was their touch screen, which was similar to the other touch screens. But I had to wait in a very slow-moving line because they only had two machines, and one was down for ten minutes while they loaded a new roll of paper.
ES&S had one more system that I did not try, although my girlfriend did, and that was a touch screen system for handicapped voters that marked the optical scan ballot. It had a number of options for larger print, and I believe it could be switched between while letters on a black background and black letters on a while background. It also had headphones so you could listen to the machine speak the voting choices to you. She found the system somewhat difficult to get used to, partly because she does not have experience using computers. She also found all the touch screen systems hard to use, because the glare from the ceiling lights bothered her. When finished, you take the optical scan ballot it marked and feed it into the validator.
One of the touch screen machines, probably Diebold, had an unusual and counterintuitive way of changing your vote. Normally if you select one candidate by mistake you simply select another, and your old "X" is erased and your latest selection is marked with a new "X". But the Diebold system removed all the empty boxes when you made a selection, so if you wanted to change your vote you had to touch your original selection again in order to "unselect" it. Then you could select a different candidate. That one confused me until I figured it out by accident.
After voting, we talked with a couple of election officials who are evaluating the machines. One thing I was a bit surprised to learn was that the equipment for counting punch cards was getting more expensive to maintain, because it is no longer manufactured. Cost is definitely a factor they worry about, and as a taxpayer I am glad they worry about it. They also told us that the mock election votes on readability, privacy, and ease of learning the equipment would actually be used to help them decide which system to buy.
One concern I had is how the touch screen machines have the ballots programmed into them before the election. St. Louis county has 94 municipalities, 24 school districts, and a similar number of fire protection districts. This makes for a dismaying number of different ballots, and some precinct polling stations have to support four different ballots because of local issues. That is likely to be an expensive and time-consuming effort when preparing the touch screens for an election. There is a similar programming effort in preparing the programs to count ballots, even for the various optical scan systems. He told us that preparing the ballots takes four months with the current punch card system.
I think all of the voting systems work reasonably well, but the touch-screen systems probably take a little more time, especially for voters who have not used them before. This could lead to long lines at the polling places. I am also concerned about power failures. I once voted a punchcard ballot when there was power failure, and there was no problem. I'm not sure if the touchscreen systems could still be used during an extended power failure, although the vendor representatives did say that the touch screen machines had battery backup.
My preference would be an optical scan system, because it seems simpler for the voter to mark a paper ballot, and you can still get a fast, automated count. And the paper ballots can still be recounted by machine or by hand. I liked the Sequoia optical scan ballot just a little bit better than the others, because it was faster to fill out. Otherwise, I think the larger 11 by 14 optical scan ballots would be easier to read that 8-1/2 by 11 ballots, and would have more space for ballot questions. All of the optical scan ballots supported voting on both sides of the same ballot sheet. The ES&S optical scan ballot was legal size, 8-1/2 by 14. I managed to keep an unmarked ES&S ballot so I could remember on the sample ballot questions.
Of the touch-screen systems, I liked Diebold the best, with the Sequoia and ESS systems very close behind, and the Populex system with its light pen, horizontal screen, and barcoded paper ballot last.
The test ballots were interesting in what they covered. I did a write-in vote on every ballot, and an undervote on almost every ballot.
The Sample Ballot
1. What is your Favorite Color?
2. What is your favorite Sport?
3. Who is your favorite late night talk show host?
4. Do you use an ATM machine?
5. Do you use a computer?
6. Were the Instructions clear on how to vote a ballot?
7. Are you able to read the screen easily?
8. Do you feel you were able to vote your ballot in private?
9. Were the instructions clear on how to change a ballot choice?
10. Were you able to vote this ballot without assistance?
11. What is your age?
12. what is your gender?
13. For commissioners of Comedy (Vote for THREE)
14. Question 1
Should the recently enacted state statue calling for intermediate drivers' licenses for those applicants between 16 to 18 years of age be repealed? Under the terms of this law, beginning in July 2001, those holding intermediate licenses have to show proof from a parent or guardian that they have had 20 hours of supervised driver training. In addition, they are prohibited from driving alone between 1:00 AM and 5:00 AM unless traveling to and from school or a job.
15. Question 2
Should the school district of the State of Missouri be required to hold the classes for 11 months of calendar year for all secondary and elementary schools? If this measure is adopted there would be one two-week break beginning the Monday preceding December 25th and another two-week break beginning the Monday preceding July 4th. The State of Missouri would reimburse the school district for any additional expenses this measure would entail.
YOU HAVE COMPLETED VOTING.
I believe the Saint Louis County Board of Election Commissions will use the actual results from questions 4 through 12 to help them decide which system to buy. Obviously they have to consider the cost and their budget. One of the commissioners told me that Saint Charles County already uses an optical scan system, and I believe that there are no counties in Missouri that are currently using touch-screens for general voting.
There were also protesters at the mock election, and they handed out leaflets calling for paper ballots and manual counting. This probably requires too many election workers to be a practical solution, and they had other objections that didn't seem completely reasonable to me. For example, they want all ballot boxes to be made of clear glass and to be constantly monitored by video surveillance cameras.
I also picked up a leaflet that Saint Louis County uses to recruit election workers. You have to be up by 5:15 AM, ready to work a 14-hour day, and the pay is $85 ($100 for supervisors). Whenever I vote, almost all the poll workers appear to be retirees, probably because they have more free time.
Here are some websites with additional information.
In early 2006, The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the Saint Louis County Board of Election Commissioners had selected Election Systems and Software as their vendor. The first elections in 2006 will likely be conducted with touch-screen DRE voting machines, with optical scan the primary system for the busier November elections. It would not surprise me if some voters find the changes a little disconcerting at first, but the equipment should be fully capable for recording votes reliably.
The Links to Diebold no longer work. Their name was changed to Premier Election Solutions (PES) and they were acquired by Election Systems & Software (ES&S) on September 2, 2009. As of April, 2010, I have voted several times using both DRE and optical scan ballots. The 2008 Presidential election included the longest lines I have ever experienced and I waited over an hour before I could vote. I believe part of the delay was due to the additional time setup for DRE voting, although most of the delay was probably due to the very large turnout. For a long ballot, I prefer the touch screen DRE. Filling in a large number of ovals (over 50) for a long ballot can become very tiring. In a well run polling place the DRE voting machines will be set up so that your back is to a wall, giving greater privacy. I occasionally use the optical scan ballots, but probably use the touch screen DRE more often.
copyright by Arnold J. Trembley