February 14, 2006


Are Chicago and Cook County Wasting $25 Million on Inferior, Non-Compliant Voting Technology?        


by Robert A. Wilson, Illinois Ballot Integrity Project


Are Chicago and Cook County Wasting $25 million on Inferior, Non-Compliant Voting Technology? New scanners don’t comply with 2002 HAVA standards, don’t warn of undervotes and can’t speak Chinese.


By Robert A. Wilson, Illinois Ballot Integrity Project

February 14, 2006


City of Chicago and Cook County election officials have been touting the new electronic voting technology they plan to use in the March 21st Primary Elections. The equipment, which will be furnished by Sequoia Voting Systems of Oakland, California, will cost more than $50 million to purchase and implement.


More than half of that amount, $25.5 million in taxpayer dollars financed largely from federal grants under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), will go toward the purchase of about 5,600 Sequoia Optech Insight precinct optical scanners. The balance goes toward the purchase of nearly 6,000 Sequoia AVC Edge DRE (touch-screen) voting terminals, election management software, disability kits, servers, workstations and other equipment and implementation costs. The touch-screens themselves, with their voting card activators, head phones and audio devices will cost about $21 million.


But was this all necessary? Are the taxpayers getting their money’s worth? In an article. "No more chads: City gears up for punch-free primary" which appeared on February 11, 2006 in the Chicago Tribune, staff writer, John McCormick, writes: "The new equipment will replace the notorious punch-card ballot--and its hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads. Voters in Chicago used the paper ballots since 1982, while those in suburban Cook County had punched choices since 1976."


He goes on to say, "The experience with punch-card ballots was less than stellar here and elsewhere. More than 120,000 Cook County voters in 2000 failed to register a choice for president or rendered their choice unusable by piercing holes next to names of two or more candidates."


Sounds awful, doesn’t it? Mr. McCormick leaves one with the impression that Chicago and Cook County were using old, out-moded punch-card systems from 1976 and 1982 which he describes as "notorious,” failing to give voters a '”second chance'" and failing 120,000 times out of about 1.9 million chances (over 6%) in one election! (more than 72,000 of the undervotes were in the City, a fall-off rate of over 7%, more than double that in the County.


But what’s the real story? What McCormick fails to mention is that the City and County purchased the PBC-2100 Precinct Ballot Counter in 1999, from Election Systems & Software (ES&S), at a cost of millions, specifically in preparation for the 2000 presidential election.


The November, 2000 problem was finally traced by the Illinois Institute of Technology (ITT) to a faulty template mold. Lance Gough, executive director of the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said on June 3, 2005, "The Board ordered the remanufacture of all the templates, which was completed by the manufacturer at no cost to the City. IIT retested the new templates to ensure that they met the exacting specifications, and tens of thousand of punches were performed to ensure accuracy. These templates have been utilized successfully during the past four elections and have dramatically reduced the number of incomplete ballot punches." LINK


While the faulty mold may have contributed to the unusually high fall-off, the real reason the system under-performed was that the technology to detect overvotes and undervotes was available but simply wasn't turned on! Gough blamed the Illinois State Legislature for failing to pass appropriate legislation that would have allowed City and County election officials to implement the undervote and overvote features of the PBC-2100. According to Gough, " . . . the ballot screening enhancements should have been fully operational for the 2000 Presidential election, but the Illinois state legislature failed to act on several legislative attempts to modify the election code so that ballots could be screened through the PBC-2100. Following the 2000 election fiasco, the City and the County joined in the lawsuit that resulted in a Circuit Court Order allowing for the use of the voter protection features. These ballot screening procedures have been in place since, and have significantly improved voter accuracy and voter confidence."


"Unique among users of the PBC-2100, the Jurisdictions [Chicago and Cook County] use a system that scans a ballot for overvotes and undervotes, giving voters a "second chance" to insure their ballot reflects their intentions."


In its June, 2004 Request for Proposal (RFP) for new voting technology, Chicago and Cook County said, "Unique among users of the PBC-2100, the Jurisdictions [Chicago and Cook County] use a system that scans a ballot for overvotes and undervotes, giving voters a "second chance" to insure their ballot reflects their intentions."


Further, they stated in the specifications, “Notification of undervote. Any proposed system must include a mechanism for alerting a voter that he or she has failed to cast a vote for one or more offices or propositions before the vote is finally cast, and to provide an opportunity to correct the undervote.” (Specification 3.5 – June, 2004)


In fact, the undervote detection capability was so prized by Chicago and Cook County that they asked Sequoia to develop specifications for a “blended” system by which Chicago would continue to use the PBC-2100 to read ballots, and Sequoia proposed to reprogram the firmware for the PBC-2100 to accept the AVC Edge cartridges and combine the results, thus eliminating the need for the Optech Insight. As Sequoia’s vice president of sales,Howard Cramer, wrote to Lance Gough on March 7, 2005: “ . . . it seems clear that both jurisdictions have been pleased with the functionality of the PBC-2100, including the precinct ballot tally . . . and the undervote and overervote warnings incorporated into the system.” LINK


In its response to the RFP, Cramer goes on to say, “. . . we would also welcome the opportunity to work with you on modifications to the PBC 2100 that would permit you to integrate that equipment with our AVC Edge touch screens equipped with VeriVote printers.” The letter includes four pages of flow charts that describe two alternative blended systems while Cramer discusses reprogramming the PBC-2100 fimware (operating system) to accept input from the touch screens and interface with the company’s tabulation sofware. In his cover e-mail to the letter, Cramer says, “The blended system concept that has really caught fire here is the use of the PBC 2100 to read the Edge cartridges. This seems like the simplest and most cost effective way to accomplish our goals with the least procedural impact on the pollworkers.” LINK


So much for “hanging chad.”


McCormick describes the Optech Insight in-precinct scanner capabilities, “The new optical-scan machines will spit out ballots that are "overvoted," meaning more than one candidate has been incorrectly marked. But they will allow "undervotes," where people fail to mark a selection.”


Again, not quite the whole story. Any system should allow for the casting of ballots with intentional undervotes (City and County voters tend to ignore retention of judges, for example). What McCormick doesn’t tell us is that the Sequoia Optech Insight precinct scanner doesn’t have undervote screening capabilities and can’t give the voter a warning for that “second chance” that’s so important. While it’s certainly true that a paper ballot is easier to review than a punch card, it’s still the case that the equipment doesn’t help. This means that the Insight optical scanner doesn’t meet the RFP specifications and represents a giant step backwards from the punch-card system it’s replacing which did have that capability and which Chicago and Cook County wanted to keep.


More importantly, the Sequoia Optech Insight precinct scanner does not comply with 2002 Voting Systems Standards/Guidelines which are given effect by Section 202(e) of HAVA. Specifically, Volume I, Section 2, “Functional Capabilities” provides in Section, “In addition to the above requirements, all paper-based precinct count systems shall:


(a) Provide feedback to the voter that identifies specific contests or ballot issues for which an overvote or undervote is detected;

(b) Allow the voter, at the voter’s choice, to vote a new ballot or submit the ballot ‘as is’ without correction; and


(c) Allow an authorized election official to turn off the capabilities defined in ‘a’ and ‘b’ above.”


Sequoia Optech Insight precinct scanner does not have the capability of turning the function on or off as in para (c), it by definition violates para (a) and (b). and therefore, in its current configuration, the device cannot comply with 2002 HAVA standards.


The Illinois Election Code makes the mandatory (not the voluntary) Voting System Standards applicable to all machines certified for use in the state. Thus, the Sequoia Optech Insight precinct scanner is by operation of law prohibited from being used in Illinois and was improperly certified by the Illinois State Board of Elections.


This becomes even more important when viewed in the context of the contracts of Chicago and Cook County which provide that all equipment delivered by Sequoia “Contract[or] (sic) warrants that any election equipment furnished pursuant to this Contract shall meet the requirements of HAVA.”


The Insight fails City and County voters in yet another way: The Illinois Election Code mandates that ballots and instructions must be in English, Spanish and Chinese. Sequoia says in their response to the RFP that they can’t have Spanish available for the March 21st primary (but will for the November elections). But, the Optech Insight has a two-line ASCII (computer code) display for errors and instructions – Chinese isn’t an ASCII language, so it appears that you might never see an error message in Chinese on this device.


Also, Cook County Clerk, David Orr, has made no secret of his endorsement of touch-screen voting and would like to implement touch-screens for all voters when funds become available. So what’s the point of spending $25.5 million to replace the PBC-2100s with Optech Insights that you plan to toss as soon as more taxpayer dollars can be funneled into this project?


City and County voters ought to be asking their election officials some hard questions about what’s going on here. Why are they spending a huge chunk of money on non-compliant optical scanners that don’t warn of undervotes like the system they replace did? Granted, according to computer experts we’ve consulted, it might have cost a couple of hundred thousand dollars to reprogram the PBC-2100, but the City and County would save $25 million that might be better spent on the next generation of technology that doesn’t saddle voters with the proposed unreliable, insecure and inaccurate systems.


When Dianne Felts, director of voting systems and standards of the State Board of Elections was quoted in the February 11th Tribune article as saying, "Shortcuts are being taken that shouldn't be taken." She wasn’t kidding!


This is the second in a series of articles on electronic voting in Illinois. Watch for the next installment: "Diebold Touch-Sceens Invade Illinois . . . RoboVoters on the March!"


The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those the Illinois Ballot Interity Project, VoteTrustUSA or of any other person or entity, public or private.


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