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States Abandoning Touchscreen Voting Equipment

By August 18, 2008

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State governments in California, Florida, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico and Tennessee are abandoning practically new electronic touchscreen voting equipment, according to McClatchy. The replacement? Optical scan equipment, meaning that there is a paper ballot marked by the voter herself. That paper ballot is scanned for counting on election day but can be counted by hand if necessary in a re-count.

Paper ballots + optical scan = transparency, a key to both effective government and well-designed interfaces (where we call it making actions visible). Election Data Services says that 55 percent of us will use paper ballots this election and that 4-in-10 will use a different voting system than in 2004.

According to EDS, only about a third of us will use touchscreens this election, compared to more than half in 2006. If you're in a touchscreen state or precinct, I say just vote absentee (if it's legal in your state).

Why the pushback? Electronic touchscreen voting systems, rushed into place with too little oversight after 2000's hanging chads, resulted in billions simply thrown at the problem by Congress. They have proved to be security risks and troublesome on election day. In both the Ohio and New Jersey presidential primaries, there were issues with touchscreens. And in four recent elections in France, voting discrepancies were higher in polling places with electronic voting systems than places using paper ballots.

Unfortunately, the federal Election Assistance Commission remains behind the eight-ball in certifying equipment. That means a lot of states have to decide between buying "new" and uncertified or "old" (and maybe buggy) and certified.

Florida's 2006 was "deja vu all over again," as machines malfunctioned in Sarasota County. ES&S voting machines failed to record 18,000 possible votes in the 13th Congressional District race. Undervoting in absentee ballots was 2.5 percent for this race, but it was about 15 percent (1-in-7) for votes cast on electronic voting machines.

The new governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, tossed them last year.

In battleground state Ohio, the secretary of state is suing Diebold Election Systems (now Premier Election Solutions) and asking the state legislature to ditch their millions-of-dollars investment for optical scan equipment. The questionable equipment was used in 53 of Ohio's 88 counties in 2006.

Meanwhile, there's still a civil suit, King Lincoln Bronzeville v. (then-Ohio-secretary of state) Blackwell, the result of citizens disgruntled over the 2004 election. According to AlterNet, "Mike Connell, a Republican IT expert ... set up Ohio's computers for the 2004 election while simultaneously running the IT network for the Bush/Cheney 2004 campaign." Who's Connell? The "registrant, administrator, and tech organizer of the website for the so-called Swiftboat Veterans for Truth."

I'm not sure which computers AlterNet is referencing. Slashdot points us to the news that Blackwell outsourced Ohio's real-time web results in 2004 to the same firm that managed the Republican National Committee website. It's also the folks/servers tied in to Karl Rove's missing email in the midst of AttorneyGate.

We'll probably never know what happened in Ohio in 2004, just like we'll probably never know what happened with Karl Rove's email. But I believe that the move to optical scan voting is a good one. So is Washington and Oregon's "vote by mail," although I know some people think mailed votes are too susceptible to fraud. What I like about it is the fact you can vote in your own home ... when it's convenient.

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