Voting technology remains an issue at the polls

Could any voting system be worse than the infamous punch ballots of the 2000 presidential election or the electronic systems alleged to have gobbled up votes in a 2006 Florida congressional race? If there is, some researchers say it might just be the system being used in Cleveland today as Ohio voters go to the polls in one of the most closely watched primary elections of the year so far.

Many locations began dumping mechanical lever systems and paper ballots in favor of electronic systems following the 2000 election. But questions about the reliability and security of computer-based touch screen systems have led some precincts to abandon them.

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland and its suburbs, is retiring its touch screen voting machines in favor of a paper optical scan system with ballots counted at a central location. But this system has flaws that risk greater voter error, say members of a research team from the universities of Maryland, Rochester and Michigan who conducted a comprehensive analysis of the voting technology over the past several years.

The researchers say the problem is that the paper ballots are susceptible to stray marks and voter errors that can make them impossible for optical scanners to read accurately. Because they are counted at a central location, the voter does not have an opportunity to pass the ballot through a scanner at the precinct to ensure it has been properly filled in.

'This is not an auspicious debut,' said University of Maryland political scientist Paul Herrnson who led the research team. 'Voters will go to the polls without a safety net. They should be very careful to avoid stray marks and to review their ballots closely. If they want to make changes, they ask for a new form instead of erasing. Colorado dropped this particular configuration of the paper/optical scan machines because it eliminates this important accuracy check.'

Herrnson and a team of political and computer scientists conducted an extensive comparison of the usability of several electronic voting and verification systems, conducting field tests with more than 1,500 subjects, as well as laboratory tests and expert reviews of the equipment. The results and recommendations are reported in the book, 'Voting Technology: The Not-So-Simple Act of Casting a Ballot,' published by the Brookings Institution.

In general, researchers found that keeping the voting process simple and user friendly matters as much to the final results as the technical security of the system.

Herrnson, speaking at a recent roundtable discussion on voting technology in Washington, said ballot design, equipment design and training of both voters and precinct workers all matter in producing an accurate election. Overall, usability trumps security, he said.

'The kind of ballot you use matters a heck of a lot' more than the technology of the voting system, he said. The biggest problem is proximity error, or marking the wrong space on a poorly designed ballot. 'People are more likely to vote for the wrong candidate than to forget to vote for a candidate.'

Another speaker at the discussion, Michael I. Shamos, who runs the eBusiness Technologies program in Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science and has a 27-year history of certifying voting systems, said, 'central optical scan currently is the worst method of voting in the United States.' He recited a litany of errors made by voters on these ballots that invalidate them or make them impossible to count, such as circling or putting a check mark beside a candidate's name, rather than filling in a space with a pencil.

The study found an overall voter accuracy rate of 97 percent for the various machines tested. "A three percent error rate sounds good until you consider that in the 2000 presidential race the percentage of uncounted ballots was only two percent," Herrnson said. The accuracy rate dropped to the 80 to 90 percent range as the task got more complicated, such as voting for more than a single candidate in a race, voting a straight-party ticket or making corrections before casting the ballot.

In a closely-contested race like that between senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who are running nearly neck-and-neck in Ohio for the Democratic presidential nomination, these margins could be decisive.

'It's ironic that Cuyahoga County is replacing touch screen machines with paper ballots,' said research team member Richard Niemi, a University of Rochester political scientist. 'Based on our research, I'm convinced that the right kind of touch screen machine could be better than paper.'

Unfortunately, we do not seem to have determined yet what the right kind of touch screen machine is.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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