electionline Weekly – March 31, 2005


I. In Focus This Week

 ‘Hybrid’ voting machines raise questions about certification, accessibility

By Elizabeth Schneider


They were touted as the solution to the problem of paper and accessibility in voting. Manufacturers of “hybrid” voting machines, which look and act like touch-screen systems but use a high-tech interface to mark paper ballots, say their systems bring the flexibility of e-voting – multiple languages, font sizes, accessibility for voters with disabilities, reduced printing costs – with the ballot-by-ballot auditability of optical-scan systems.

It’s a tempting choice for states seeking to balance the needs of those with disabilities with concerns over direct-recording electronic (DRE) systems, which do not allow an independent paper audit of individual ballots.

In nine months – by January 1, 2006 – states must meet the voting-system accessibility mandates of the Help America Vote Act. If a state accepted punch-card and lever machine buyout money, it must replace systems statewide. All states must purchase at least one machine per polling accessible to people with disabilities.

And that gives them little time to figure out the maze of voting system certification.

Given the current and complex system of voting machine certification, which uses standards that were last updated in 2002, election officials are still unsure how to meet the January 2006 deadline, and at the same time comply with standards that might not be on target with the yet-to-be released guidelines. (See last week’s electionline Weekly for more.)

The manufactures of the hybrid AutoMark system say their machines comply with the HAVA mandates. Some groups representing voters with disabilities disagree. 

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) states several counties in Ohio plan to purchase an AutoMark system in order to comply with the new state law. By doing so, the AAPD argues, they would violate the law.

“The AutoMark is not accessible for those disabled Buckeyes who cannot handle paper… purchasing the AutoMark not only violates the Help America Vote Act, it is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act,” states the AAPD letter.

The AutoMark is outfitted with a sip/puff tube for voters who are unable to use a touch screen or touch pad and an audio function for voters with impaired vision. The Populex machine, a similar hybrid, also allows touch controls and other “enhanced navigation” for people with disabilities.

Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs for the AAPD, argues that people who are unable to use their hands will lose their right to a secret ballot with the AutoMark machine because, “a voter who casts a ballot on the system would be required to carry the marked ballot and then insert it into a vote tabulator.”

“HAVA outlines that the voting process is to be independent,” says Dickson. “And the simple problem [with AutoMark] is the loss of independence and secrecy.”

According to several groups supporting the voting rights of the disabled community, including the American Council of the Blind, the use of direct-recording electronic machines, already certified by the federal government and in use in many states, has proven to be the most accessible voting system. DREs can also be outfitted with a printer to produce a voter-verifiable paper record.

According to the National Institute for of Standards and Technology (NIST), HAVA allocates $850 million to the states over three years to purchase accessible voting equipment, footing about 95 percent of the total cost.

The AutoMark has also drawn fire from the United Spinal Association.

“This system is accessible, but not to all,” the group wrote in a letter opposing the use of the machines.

According to Ellen Bogard, a spokesperson for ES&S, the voting machine company which markets the system, the AutoMark ensures the privacy of every voter. A voter would be able to use a secrecy sleeve which would protect the ballot from view, and for those who require assistance handling the ballot ES&S can “prepare ballots without any candidate names, initiatives or other ballot measures printed on the document.”

But the cost of the machines could discourage some localities, even if they want the hybrid technology. Ohio, for example, has increased its voter rolls by nearly one million people in the past two years. “The $106 million the state received for new voting technology will not be enough to reach the states original goal of supplying one accessible machine per 200 registered voters,” said Carlo LaParo, a spokesperson for Blackwell. “The AutoMark is currently outside of our budget.”

According to the AAPD, the cost of the AutoMark is at least 30 percent higher than accessible touch screens. Elaine Gravely, Montana’s deputy secretary of state for elections, told a local newspaper that the machines cost around $5,000.

In contrast, Maryland reports the state paid just over $2,800 per touch-screen DREs manufactured by Diebold.

To update the standards, NIST was given the authority, under HAVA, to provide technical and administrative support to the body that will make the final recommendation to the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC).

The Institute’s Technical Guidelines Development Committee is expected to review and approve the final draft of the new recommendations and standards on April 20th and 21st.

Allan Eustis, project leader for the committee, said the reports will serve as a road map to help the EAC create new voting certification standards.

“It will be up to the guidelines committee to say ‘yea’ or ‘nay,’” he said.

The report from NIST, said Whitney Quesenbery, of Whitney Interactive Design and an advisor to the Technical Guidelines Development Committee specializing in usability, is being rushed out “precisely because of the gaps in the 2002 standards.”

What’s missing, she said, is a specific standard which would cover the full range of a person’s abilities, including those that face problems in accessing a voting system, and where the disability affects the usability of the system.

According to federal election commissioner Ray Martinez, NIST and the committee are taking existing standards and updating them with a priority on security, accessibility and usability.

The AutoMark system, he said, could be problematic for a person who does not have the use of their hands or is blind or visually impaired to take ballots from system to a ballot box which could possibly compromises the independent clause of HAVA.

“The EAC has not weighed in on whether this is the case [with the AutoMark],” he said. “We need to look at any of these areas where there is ambiguity or need for greater clarity… and these will be voluntary guidelines.”