Monday, August 13, 2007

Are Touch Screen Voting Systems in New York Doomed?

At some point, eventually, New York will move from its lever machines to some kind of electronic voting system. The choice is between two basic architectures: optical scan machines (which allow a voter to fill out a ballot with a pen or pencil, and then scan it into an electric scanner, just as she would fill out a lottery ticket) and the touch screen machines (by which a voter touches a computer screen -- similar to an ATM screen -- and her vote is recorded directly onto a computer).

For all of the contentious debate about which system is better for New York (many groups, including the Brennan Center, NYPIRG, New Yorkers for Verified Voting and the New York League of Women Voters have come out in favor of Optical Scan machines for New York), recent developments in New Jersey suggest that New York counties may not have to make a choice at all -- because the touchscreens won't get certified.

One of the complicating factors in New York is that under State Law, the new electronic machines must produce a paper trail. That's no problem for optical scan machines -- the voter fills out the paper ballot herself, and it is stored in a ballot box connected to the scanner. But for touch-screen machines, the vendors must create a printer that produces a paper trail that voters can review -- this is something voting system vendors have shown themselves remarkably inept at creating.

To our knowledge, no vendor has been successful at creating a printer for "full face" touch screen machines. The State Board of Elections has held that if counties buy touch screens in New York, they must be "full face" -- meaning that all candidates and races must appear on a single screen (making for a very large screen) -- AND have a printer.

When we say no vendor has been "successful" in creating a printer for such touch screen machines, we mean none has created a printer that jurisdictions have found reliable enough to use in an actual election.

And the vendors failed once again, last week. For more than a year, vendors have been trying to create voter verified printers for New Jersey's full face touch-screen machines. On Friday, Attorney General Anne Milgram said they were unsuccessful, and that they must correct their flaws and resubmit the printers for new testing.

There is little reason to believe that vendors will be any more successful in New York, which has been particularly tough in certifying machines.

We won't be crying over the missed opportunity to purchase full-face touch screen machines. As we've shown in past studies, such machines are not only ridiculously expensive, cumbersome, overly-complicated and large, they are also poorly designed and confusing to voters -- which has historically resulted in extremely high "undervote" rates. Voters are so confused that they accidentally skip races. We've estimated that their use in New York could result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of votes.


Anonymous said...

Oh, it's not possible for a machine to print out the correct vote for the voter but tabulate a fixed vote? If the results which are recorded on the memory chip are skewed so that the "favoured candidate" achieved a clear victory then nobody is going to call for a recount and the discrepancy between the paper and digital records will remain undiscovered .

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