Voting ABCs: Avoid Butterflies and Chads

When it comes to straightforward, reliable voting systems, I think my precinct back in Baltimore got it right: Next to each candidate's name on the ballot is an arrow with its middle missing. To vote, just draw a little line connecting the two halves of the arrow that points to your candidate.

That's all there is to it. It's a paper trail with no butterflies, no hanging chads, no Windows-esque crashes, glitches or security holes. (And yes, many DRE machines run on a Windows operating system.) Each vote can be read and counted in seconds by an optical scanner; should a recount prove necessary, each ballot is available and unambiguous.

Touch screens, like butterfly ballots, can be confounding to many seniors. Even though some people will be confused no matter what, the arrow design seems to be about as simple as a ballot can get.

Instead of spending large sums purchasing and maintaining computerized voting machines, would it make more sense for local and state governments to use optical scanner-based systems?

When a scanner malfunctions at a polling place, it's no problem -- poll workers can just count the ballots later using another machine. A DRE voting machine malfunction (once it's been noticed) means the precinct loses a whole voting station.

If multiple machines break down, voting can slow to a crawl, provoking some voters to give up rather than wait around for their turn. In far too many cases in 2004, voters in line were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but a large number of those wound up being thrown out for various reasons.

Part of the problem is that the Help America Vote Act is thought by many to require DRE voting machines, but in fact, it does not. The requirement in question states that voting machines that can be used by the disabled must be made available.

Some argue DREs are perfectly reliable, and in many cases, that's surely true. The potential for fraud, though concerning, is not the biggest problem with purely computerized voting; unintended error is far more likely.

We know that the machines break, they crash, they get confused. We also know that even a simple malfunction can wind up turning people away from the polls -- an unacceptable result in a country that believes in near-universal enfranchisement.

Our democracy is our most precious asset, and voting is its foundation. Why open the door to even the appearance of impropriety? Why take unnecessary risks at the expense of the people?

Note: This post and the next were written when the time stamp indicates, but it took me a few days to copy edit and get them online, for reasons that will become clear shortly. Thanks for understanding!

By Emily Messner |  June 21, 2006; 7:59 PM ET  | Category:  National Politics
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[Didn't realize DC is under a flood, and probably explains why was slower than molasses today, too]

The whole thing that we had to change a good vote casting system just to placate angry sore losers, is what's wrong with the picture.

Punch cards were really low maintenance, seniors been using them since they started voting (our machines were from the 60's and had many more good years of service). Even new voters could understand the instructions of inserting the ballot and making sure it's seated right, and using the poker. When done, just remove card, give it to the pollster, s/he'll tear off the accounting strip, and you insert it into the voting box.

What I've found is with the old ballots folks spent more time thinking on who to vote. Once the ballot was punched there's a finality to the voting, it tactical. Now, you can go through the entire 30 or so choices and be out in 5 minutes, with as much interaction as an ATM machine (complete with a card that can be "eaten" by the poll station).

But, alas, we can't go back now. The angry sore losers now have to tread through the mess they created (and all of the problems technology brings with it -- identity theft; rigging numbers; hacking/cracking; bad software design, etc.).

Hope it's an Occam's Razor lesson that the next time voters are in a knee-jerk mode, that they'll kick themselves in their own mouths, instead of making districts pay for more complexity, let alone for seniors and the rest to feel hassled just to vote.


Posted by: SandyK | June 26, 2006 08:12 PM

I have used both punch cards and optical scan ballots. I prefer the optical scan ballots. As a part time elections worker for 5 years and a supervisor tht had computers programs by key punched cards, I here to tell you that punch card ballots are not counted as reliably as the optical scan ballots and they are harde to hand count. We have machines that are accessable for the disabled which also mark an optically scanned ballot. This last election was a piece of cake as was the "canvas" to verify the machine count. There is no way I would trust my vote to a touch voting machine.

Posted by: Mack | June 27, 2006 03:08 PM

We live in a computer age, so the idea that we wouldn't leverage computers to assist in the creation and counting of 300,000,000 ballots isn't particularly sound.

By the same token, we shouldn't trust the computers, so that the ballots created, and the counting, should be duplicable by humans.

Long story short, the ideal(=perfect) computer voting system has two separate computers. A person goes to the first one and (like many touch screen systems today) pick their candidates. When they are done, the system prints out a ballot like:

President: Josh Narins (I)
Vice-President: Emily Messner (D)
Governor: my pal Don
Lieutenant Governor: my other pal Eli

[the colons would line up for easier readability, of course]

1. The voter is sure that the ballot says what they want it to say. They can view it.

2. The computer can read the ballots flawlessly. Optical Character Recognition is a no brainer when a computer is generating the text.

3. In the case of a hand recount, there is no ambiguity about the intent of the voter. There is no mind-bending efforts to simulate a computer (i.e. try looking at just 50 filled in scantron sheets and look at like 12, over and over. It can be tricky to make sure you are looking at 12, but relatively trivial to look for the english names of the race and candidate)

Posted by: The Perfect Voting System | June 29, 2006 02:30 PM

I think that we should have a hard paper trail on our voting. Just leaving it up to the electronic trail is too risky. There are too many things that could go wrong AND too many ways for fraud to occur and not be detectable or tracable. I have use 3 different forms of a paper ballot and have not had any problems with any of them. None of them were hard to read or understand, and all of them provided a paper trail in case of a recount. For all of the advantages of a purely electronic ballot, there are just as many disadvantages and/or opprtunties for abuse and/or outright fraud. As has been pointed out, it's far too easy for programing to be used/inserted and not be detected, even if you're looking for it.

Posted by: Tom C | July 23, 2006 02:45 PM

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