The New York Times
December 4, 2006
Wrong With My Voting Machine?
By ADAM COHEN
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
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
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
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
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