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The Newtown Bee

News, Events and Local Information for Newtown, Connecticut.

June 30, 2005

 

Commentary

 

The Case for Optical Scan Voting Technology

 

By John Nussbaum

 

Next year, Connecticut voters may shake their head at the irony responsible for replacing our voting machines, but they will shake their fists if they believe Connecticut chose the wrong machine. The mechanical lever machine was invented to replace paper ballots in 1892, 15 years after the fiercely contested presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes. Due to a similar presidential election in 2000, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was passed and mandates that we now generate a paper record of votes to allow a manual audit or recount. The irony is that the greatest century of technological advances has brought us back to counting votes on paper.

 

There are two options: Direct recording electronic (DRE) machines that use computer technology and optical scanning machines that electronically count paper ballots marked up by the voter. Due to security issues inherent to computer technology, electronic voting machines necessitate a paper receipt that the voter can verify. Therefore, if we apply logic to this decision, we will choose the best technology for a paper-based system of either paper ballots marked up by the voter or paper receipts generated by a computer.

 

Tests results show that there is no significant statistical difference in the voter error rate between the two technologies. However, while there is no fast system for a recount of the paper trail that comes out of an electronic voting machine, optical scanners allow you to simply rescan the paper ballots for a recount. In addition, optical scanners are easier to use for the largest generation of voters who did not grow up with computers; they win the voter speed test every time. The main benefit of paper ballots and optical scanners is that the system itself is easily understood by the voter and better suited to building voter confidence.

 

Unfortunately, the myths being circulated in Connecticut about optical scanners are not helping us make the right decision. One myth is that no optical scan machine has been certified for use in Connecticut. Not true. Connecticut has certified an optical scanner that is being used in several towns. Last week, a machine was federally certified that would allow the disabled to mark up a paper ballot that could also be optically scanned. Under HAVA, we are required to have one machine per polling place for the disabled. If Connecticut were to certify that machine, we could purchase a uniform system of voting technology in compliance with HAVA. Bottom line, HAVA does not require us to replace our 3,400 plus mechanical levered machines with the same machines we choose for the disabled.

 

Another myth, which is actually not a myth because no one in Connecticut involved with our voting systems really believes it, is that paper ballots and optical scanners would be more expensive to purchase, use, and maintain. Any fiscal analysis of the two technologies overwhelmingly favors optical scanners because it will take a minimum of two electronic voting machines to replace the speed of a mechanical lever machine. In 2003, East Lyme replaced its 17 mechanical lever machines with three optical scanners and privacy booths for $30,000. Furthermore, if you talk to any voting official in the 47 other states that use optical scan technology, they will tell you that electronic voting machines will likely be two or three times as expensive to operate and maintain versus an optical scan system.

 

Therein lies the biggest obstacle to making the right decision on new machines for Connecticut. Our registrars and town clerks, who have the most experience and responsibility for voting systems in our state, have not been fully consulted, or even fully informed of their options. This is a mistake because, both by law and in reality, it will be their responsibility to come into compliance with HAVA and sell the new system to the Connecticut voter. Thanks to Senator Dodd, the secretary of the state's office has $32 million to help fund this transition. However, free electronic machines will have no value to the towns and cities who favor optical scanners.

 

Is it a myth, or by design, that Connecticut will never be given the option of selecting an optical scanner that could be reimbursed by the secretary of the state's office? To date, Connecticut has put out an request for proposals and received only bids for electronic voting machines. Unless the secretary of the state's office acts immediately, the lead time necessary to deliver optical scanners and optical scan ballot marking machines for next year's federal election will expire.

 

(John Nussbaum is a Democratic candidate for secretary of the state in next year's state elections.)

 

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