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Around the States

Montana: Electronic Voting, Counting Machines can be Troublesome PDF  | Print |  Email
By Billings Gazette   
December 12, 2006
Montana Rep. Brady Wiseman is a Democrat and Secretary of State Brad Johnson is a Republican, but the two are in agreement on the need for secure, reliable elections.
 
This editorial appeared in The Billings Gazette

Their shared background has something to do with it. Wiseman is a software engineer for RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, an Internet technology company, and Johnson used to work there as an account manager.

"The point is, he has the technology background, and so do I," Wiseman said. "We saw eye to eye immediately on touch-screen voting machines."

They didn't like what they saw, which is why they worked together on a bill Wiseman introduced during the 2005 legislative session to require all voting technology in the state to use paper ballots. The law easily passed in both chambers of the Montana Legislature.

Wiseman said it was an easy sell because he asked each of his colleagues to imagine himself in a hotly contested political race. Imagine having some individual counting all the ballots in the back of a closed truck and emerging to tell you you've lost the election.

Then imagine asking for a recount and watching that person go back into the truck, emerging once again and confirming that you lost - and that you have to take his word for it because you can't look at the ballots.

That is basically what you get with touch-screen voting, Wiseman said. Not only are the machines more susceptible to manipulation and fraud, but like all technology they are also subject to glitches and human-generated errors, and with no paper ballots their mistakes might be impossible to trace.

"Having made many, many computer errors myself, I know it's very easy to do," Wiseman said.

Critics of electronic voting say the technology has led to huge mistakes and botched elections all over the country. At the VotersUnite Web site (www.votersunite.org), there is a long list of specific cases involving Election Systems & Software Inc., which provides all the election software in use in Montana.

It tells of dropped votes, blank ballots, software bugs that made vote audits impossible, votes "flipped" between candidates, misprinted ballots and more.

One of the largest election messes this year is still unfolding in Florida, where results of the 13th Congressional District race are still up in the air. The Republican candidate was leading by fewer than 400 votes, but as many as 18,000 voters who cast ballots in that district did not vote in that particular race - or so said the tally of the ES&S electronic voting devices.

Amanda Brown, a spokeswoman for ES&S in Omaha, Neb., said a lawsuit over that race precluded her from saying much about it, except that the results appeared to show a simple "undervote," where voters casting ballots decide not to vote in that race.

David Dill, the founder of Verified Voting, said on his Web site earlier this week that the undervote rate was 14 percent in the House race, but only a little over 1 percent in the U.S. Senate race in the same district.

Warren Stewart, the policy director for Vote Trust USA, called the undervote in Florida "outrageously high."

John Gideon, executive director of VotersUnite, said ES&S "has failed constantly with their ballot programming. ... Their software is just garbage."

Even in Montana, which relies on either hand-counted ballots or optical scanners that tally paper ballots, there are problems related to the vote-counting machines. During the Nov. 7 election, vote-counting snafus cropped up in Yellowstone, Flathead and Silver Bow counties. In Silver Bow the problem was merely a disruption, but in Flathead County the software problem could not be rectified and ballots had to be counted by hand.

In Yellowstone County, Election Administrator Duane Winslow briefly became something of a national hero when, after midnight, he admitted to having failed to press the right buttons on two of the county's three vote-counting machines, making it necessary to start the tallying process over at nearly 1 a.m.

At the time, Winslow said he was unfamiliar with the new software for his machines, Model 650 scanners manufactured by ES&S.

Gideon cited other instances in which election officials took the blame for mistakes in using the ES&S equipment, as Winslow did. Often, he said, the real blame lies with ES&S because of the complexity of its equipment and the difficulty of using it.

"It should have been designed so that those human errors couldn't happen," he said.

Winslow acknowledged that ES&S software "has always been a little difficult to work with" and that the level of customer service has dropped in recent years. But that is understandable, he said, because ES&S rapidly went from a relatively small company to the largest of its kind in the country.

Secretary of State Johnson said ES&S was a victim of its own marketing success and went through a huge expansion between the 2004 and 2006 elections. This election cycle also marked the introduction of a lot of new equipment mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act, Johnson said, making it doubly difficult for the company.

"There's no point in beating up on those guys," he said.

Wiseman also defended ES&S, saying it has a huge responsibility involving a lot of complicated technology, with virtually no room for error. On top of that, he said, it has to gear up for elections by hiring hundreds of part-time workers who require extensive training.

Brown, the spokeswoman for ES&S, said the company has 350 full-time employees and hired 150 temporary workers this year to help get all the new voting systems across the country up and running. It also hired 900 contract site-support personnel who were in the field on Election Day.

"All of these contract employees went through training specific to the ES&S equipment and have access to service and support services," Brown said.

In general terms, Brown said, "we were really pleased with how Election Day went." She said ES&S provides a variety of voting systems used by 67 million registered votes in 1,800 jurisdictions in 43 states.

In Montana, Election Day problems were not only related to new equipment and balky software. More than 63 percent of registered voters went to the polls, a record for an off-year election, and there was a record number of absentee votes. Also new this year was a same-day voter registration law, which resulted in long lines in county courthouses at a time when the vote counting was supposed to begin.

Corrick said one obvious solution to all the problems encountered in American elections would be to require the universal use of paper ballots and the hand-counting of every vote.

It sounds antiquated, he said, but the system is used in Canada and in all Western European nations except Holland. The trick is to have small precincts and to have votes counted at the precinct level. That way you can hand-count the ballots and still have results a few hours after the polls closed.

But given the huge investment in technology, it's unlikely to happen, he said, which is why he doesn't even include it on his list of suggested election reforms.

Wiseman said elections are another casualty of the American desire for instant gratification. The American people, and the media in particular, have come to expect quick results, when the paramount consideration should be a fair, thorough count, he said. The first election in the United States gave people three weeks to vote, Wiseman said.

Those days are long gone. Now we expect officials to conduct elections in one day and then stay on the job until all the votes are counted, no matter how long it takes.

"Is there some kind of emergency that they have to stay up all night?" he asked.
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