The New York Times

December 4, 2006

Editorial Observer


What’s Wrong With My Voting Machine?



To the long list of recent Election Day horrors from butterfly ballots to six-hour lines, add “vote flipping.”


In Ohio, Illinois, New Jersey and other states last month, there were reports — some confirmed by election officials — that when voters touched the screen for one candidate, the machine registered it for another. One Florida Congressional race, in which the Republican won by fewer than 400 votes, is in the courts because paperless electronic voting machines may have failed to register as many as 18,000 votes.


This year’s election had voters across the country once again asking why voting machines are so lousy. Their technology is similar to A.T.M. technology, but when was the last time your A.T.M. flipped a $200 withdrawal into a $200 deposit?


Voting machines, unlike home electronics, are not sold in a competitive consumer market, which is ruthlessly unforgiving of low quality. The officials who buy them generally do not know much about technology. They listen to sales pitches from vendors who relentlessly push the most expensive models. Sometimes, well-connected lobbyists apply pressure. The process is rife with conflicts of interest, from free meals to future jobs with the manufacturers.


Since quality is not the deciding factor, it’s not surprising there isn’t a lot of it.


Voters who complain about their own machines don’t often get a chance to compare them with other options. But New York’s boards of elections are replacing the old lever machines, and I recently went to demonstrations the city held to allow the public to try out the five finalists.


There are many important things about a voting machine you can’t tell from a quick inspection. But what was clear was almost all disturbing. Here are the ratings:


Avante Touch-Screen (no stars)


This is one of two A.T.M.-like touch-screen machines in the running. Even if they were reliable, touch-screens would not be practical for populous areas. Configured to hold New York’s ridiculously large ballot, this five-foot-wide, 280-pound machine is so expensive, at about $8,000, that there might be only one per polling place, and lines could extend for hours. One machine I sampled cut off parts of words. And the bottom half of the name of one of the political parties was missing. A bigger problem is that this machine appears to run afoul of a New York law requiring that all voting machine computer code be given to the state. It runs on Windows, and Microsoft keeps its code secret.


Sequoia Touch-Screen (no stars)


Like the Avante, this machine should be ruled out simply because it is a touch-screen. But there is a lot more to dislike. The paper records produced by a voting machine should be secured in a lockbox. On this one, they fall into a small bag that could easily be snatched. Not that a thief would need to bother. The bag has a zipper on the bottom. Like Avante’s, this touch-screen runs on Windows, which probably means it cannot satisfy New York’s code-sharing law.


Sequoia Optical Scan (no stars)


With optical scans, many voters can fill out paper ballots at the same time. They are then fed into an optical scan reader, which goes very quickly. Unfortunately, this machine has other problems. Instead of blackening an oval next to their choice, voters connect a broken arrow. I have filled in thousands of ovals, but I had never before connected a broken arrow. As we saw with the butterfly ballot in 2000, the voting machine is not a good place to ask voters to acquire new skills. New York law requires that candidates of the same party be listed in a single column, to make it easier to vote by party. This machine scatters candidates of the same party all over the ballot.


Diebold Optical Scan ?


When I fed my ballot into this machine, it jammed twice. The sales representative expressed shock, but this is a frequently heard complaint. Even a balky optical scan is better than a touch-screen, but how hard is it to make one that doesn’t jam?


Diebold has been the most infamous name in elections since its chief executive wrote that he was committed to helping deliver Ohio to President Bush, in an election in which his machines were counting the votes. The company has a long list of misdeeds, including installing unapproved and uncertified software in California.


ES&S Optical Scan ?½


This seemed like the best of the five machines on display, but that wasn’t saying much. ES&S machines were used in Florida’s 13th Congressional District, where they are still looking for the 18,000 votes that may have gone missing.


New York’s official testing agencies notified election officials last week that none of these five machines fully meet the state’s standards. New York has been the slowest state to adopt new voting machines, and the fact that the manufacturers were displaying products that still did not comply with state law says a lot about the basic level of competence in the industry.


No one in New York has much patience for more delay. But if it comes down to waiting longer or sticking voters with illegal or unreliable machines that will undermine democracy for years to come, officials should wait, and insist on better machines. New Yorkers, and all Americans, deserve better choices than the voting machine industry is offering.


Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company