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Arizona: Computer Scientist Releases Report on Maricopa County Voting Machine Problems PDF Print Email
By Warren Stewart, Director of Legislative Issues and Policy, VoteTrustUSA   
January 12, 2006
Jones Report Questions the Quality of State and Federal Oversight of Voting Technology

Douglas Jones, a highly respected computer scientist who has written extensively on the history and technology of voting, has released a report detailing the results of his investigation of voting machine problems in Maricopa County Arizona (Phoenix). Dr. Jones, a professor at the University of Iowa, was invited on December 20, 2005 to perform extensive testing on the county's 8 Optech 4C vote tabulating machines.  These machines are used to scan absentee ballots, which make up approximately half of all ballots cast in a typical election in Maricopa County.

The circumstances surrounding the request for Dr. Jones' report have created some controversy in Arizona. Sen. Jack Harper (R-Surprise) is investigating voting irregularities in the 2004 District 20 primary. Harper initially requested that the State Senate to fund the report, but when Senate President Ken Bennett denied his request, Harper arranged  to fund the investigation privately by the Phoenix New Times. The newspaper agreed to pay $3,000 for Jones to examine voting machines used in the 2004 District 20 primary race and Jones, was allowed to inspect the machines last month as a result of Harper's subpoenas.


Last week, a Democratic member of the Senate Ethics Committee told the Arizona Republic that he hopes to force an investigation into whether Harper's actions amount to "renting out" his legislative subpoena powers. For his part, Harper reportedly welcomes such an investigation into his tactics and told the East Valley Tribune that he was comfortable he had acted ethically. "I have had the purest of motives in trying to get to the bottom of the voting irregularities from the September 2004 primary election," he said. Harper said the U.S. Justice Department should investigate the disputed election, in which John McComish defeated Anton Orlich after a recount found more than 400 new votes and reversed the initial outcome. This political maneuvering has no impact on the results of the study and the problems he uncovered, which are alarming.

The specific problems Jones identified hinge on the issue of what is a vote.  Under current voting system standards, optical mark-sense scanners are tested only with ballots marked in the way the vendor prescribes.  In contrast, real voters make a number of marks that vary from the exact prescription, both in the shape of their marks and in the pen or pencil used. Unfortunately, neither Federal, state nor county testing of optical mark-sense scanners adequately tests the exact setting of the mark-sensing threshold.  These problems are not confined to Arizona or to the Optech line of vote tabulators.

In Maricopa County, the instructions on the ballot said "Connect the arrow with a single line", and county election officials had publicly recommended that voters use Bic ballpoint pens.  Unfortunately, when the machines were tested, two of them had their mark-sensing threshold set to a level that could not reliably sense a single stroke of a Bic pen.

Had the marking instructions demanded a "dark mark" instead of "a single line", this might not have been a problem.

Had the county officials recommended using modern blue or black rolling ball pens, this might not have been a problem.

Had the county tested the voting machines with typical pens that real voters use to mark their absentee ballots, they might have taken these machines out of service.

Jones' report brings into question the quality of state and Federal oversight of our voting technology.  The current system of Voluntary Federal Voting System Standards does not address these issues, and the current Federal recommendations for best practices in pre-election testing ignore these issues.

Jones suggests that only by hand examination of how actual voters mark their ballots can we determine how the thresholds on the voting machines ought to be set. Jones also suggests that when a recount differs significantly from the first count, only a hand examination of the ballots can determine whether the machinery was out of adjustment or whether ballots might have been altered.

Contrary to claims by the Phoenix New Times to exclusive rights to the report, Jones has made it publicly available. It can be downloaded here.
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