More of the same – expensive voting machines for Georgia

Harvie Branscomb –  electionquality.com –  2/17/2019
Georgia State Rep. Barry Fleming states that “Using the new touchscreen-marked paper ballots solves all of the problems associated with hand-marked paper ballots.”

No it doesn’t. And it doesn’t provide the many advantages that hand-marked paper ballots offer.

Rep. Fleming is taking a very simplistic view that ballot marking computers remove uncertainty and exception from human attempts to vote. He is concerned about election judges interpreting marks on ballots (such as with magnifying glass) and prefers computers. Yes, his preferred electronic system silently and conveniently produces a single unarguable vote count number like the existing soon-to-be-banished DRE does. He can legislate that the number is official but that doesn’t mean it is accurate.

A well-designed hand audit of paper ballots that all voters either hand-marked or carefully examined, understood and corrected would find and correct enough outcome-changing inaccuracies. But Rep. Fleming is suggesting hand-marking is outdated and error prone. His straw man about hanging chads isn’t even remotely relevant.

A much anticipated and much needed feature of Georgia’s proposed electronic vote capture devices for all to use is voter verification of whatever the machine prints on paper. Experts warn that verification doesn’t actually happen – voters rarely even glance at the paper. How could Georgia allow a crucial distinction between an unverifiable past and a verified future to be just wishful thinking?

The proposed rerun of touchscreen technology at the polls perpetuates the problems that exist with current DRE touchscreens. The biggest problem is that they are computers – custom built computers. Most of us know about problems with computers – and particularly ones that are rarely tested and rarely used: they cost a lot to buy, cost a lot to maintain, require spares for breakdowns, and will inevitably be in too short supply in some polling places causing lines. Ballot marking computers will be difficult to test and may require calibration to avoid consistent errors.  As with DREs, they will be misunderstood by some voters and probably even scare some of the more timid folks away.

And if something is wrong with software in one machine that happens to help some candidate to win, it is likely to infect many or all machines.

Worse yet, skeptical voters will be lulled into thinking they have verified their vote while watching the screen. In fact the vote to be counted is encoded into an unreadable row of lines on a computer image – containing one or more barcodes – that is printed only at the end of the voting session. An average voter probably won’t even look at that paper and if so wouldn’t recognize all of what is written there – even the part that is human readable. Only the barcode is counted, not the human readable text.

Hand-marked ballots are common. In Colorado, not unlike many states, 95% of voters hand-mark ballots. Colorado has recently been called the safest state to vote in. In Colorado we simply have pairs of election judges check enough exceptional physical paper ballots to make sure the inevitable mistakes made by scanning machines don’t affect outcomes. We call those checks human adjudication for the tabulator followed by a risk limiting audit. Those steps resolve any concern that the convenient flexibility of hand marks on paper will cause an incorrect outcome. In real elections there are not many hand marks that a machine cannot interpret and almost none that election judges have trouble interpreting.

Why are those steps used for hand-marked paper? Because human marks on paper are created by natural variations in the human condition – lack of muscular coordination, failing eyesight, unwillingness to read instructions, mistakes made while marking, etc. Sound familiar?

Voters using machines to mark ballots have the same foibles but technology is cleverly designed to leave no trace of those problems. Are those natural and unavoidable human variations actually remedied by the ballot marking device? Certainly not all. We cannot know because the evidence is disappeared – no room was made for it in the electronic memory that prints a bunch of bar codes on paper and many lines of unfamiliar shorthand like “voted yes on amendment 23a.”  The voter may have difficulty associating that shorthand with the explanatory text of the question they saw onscreen. In any case, the machine’s version of the countable vote is hidden within a barcode. A vote as if carved in stone in an unrecognizable language covering up any original nuance or mistake by the voter.

Rep. Fleming writes that the new system will remove “the opportunity for human error” when in fact it removes the opportunity to detect, audit and correct for human error. It avoids a simple means to accommodate for human and machine weakness and forces voters to express their vote only through the machines’ limited and not so trustworthy software interface.

To make the new system actually “verified”  and different from the unverifiable DRE about to be abandoned, you may be surprised to learn that after machine-marking, it becomes the voter’s unsuspected and undesired but vital responsibility to make sure the machine printed the vote correctly so it can be counted correctly. Neither the system nor Rep. Fleming reveal how important that verification is or how difficult it might be. Since we cannot force voters to take that responsibility, verification is not effective. Any voter that attempts to verify also shoulders the inconvenient task to ask officials to take corrective action if exceptions are actually noticed. Does that sound like Georgia is replacing unverifiable with verified elections? Not to me.

The chads in Florida have been ridiculed as if paper was at fault. Instead the local officials were at fault for failing to empty the chad trays.  Meanwhile the paper actually did a heroic job of capturing evidence of voter intent while the machine failed. That is called fail-safety – a beautiful thing. Fail-safety for electronic ballot marking computers is to stop using them and substitute hand-mark paper.

Dedicated people like the memorable Judge Robert Rosenberg of Broward County used a large magnifying glass to interpret evidence of voter intent that only existed because of paper. That’s what we want to happen in a close election. His photo was made world-famous as an example of a bad system but could have been celebrated as a human and paper system recovering from mismanagement. The spin on that photo has done inestimable harm to election recounts and audits. As Rep. Fleming admits, that story led straight to Georgia’s (undesirable) DREs. It is about to serve the same counterproductive purpose again to bring in BMDs , undesirable when used by all. If SB316 is adopted, Georgia won’t need the likes of Judge Rosenberg to perform audits or recounts of perfect ballots printed by software. That is not a selling point from my citizen perspective.

The inevitable rough edges of the voter experience can be revisited during an audit or recount of hand-marked ballots to obtain the most accurate vote count – something that the machines cannot provide – with or without electronic marking. These citizen auditors deserve sincere thanks as first responders who use trustworthy tools such as, occasionally, the magnifying glass. If electronic markers are in use, evidence of original voter intent, expressed either with ease or with difficulty, will be known only through perfect-looking interpretations printed by software developers, known to match the voter intent only if the voter is both prepared and willing to check.

Machines are known to make consistent mistakes in interpreting human expressions – no matter how expensive and well designed they might be. And voters, including those who are probably disabled but not ready to admit it are known to have problems with machines. Are you one of those voters? Do you know someone who is? You might want to ask for a paper ballot in hand and sooner rather than later as the Georgia Legislature makes its decision soon with HB-316. For some details look at my article on the bill:  bit.ly/GA-316 .

Harvie Branscomb

I’ve been a credentialed watcher of elections in Colorado since before 2000 – during which time they evolved from hand-marked paper to DRE and dramatically back again. I have served as a citizen election official, a party official, a SOS-appointed committee member all on numerous occasions. I am a software developer. I post my comments on my website: electionquality.com

The original article referred to above is linked here:

New Voting Machines for Georgia | InsiderAdvantageGeorgia | State Rep. Barry Fleming
http://insideradvantage.com/2019/02/15/new-voting-machines-for-georgia/

One thought on “More of the same – expensive voting machines for Georgia

  1. Very good summary of the pitfall that the Georgia Legislators may soon trip into. Watch out, Legislators! The vote you save by choosing hand-marked paper ballots may be your own.

    Here’s something to ponder: “And if something is wrong with software in one machine that happens to help some candidate to win, it is likely to infect many or all machines.” That brings to mind what is looking like a software glitch: the missing 127,000+ votes that should have shown up in the total votes for Lt. Governor but seem to have gone missing in primarily Black precincts.

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