There’s a good reason Montana hasn’t been swallowed up in the election scandals that have wracked states like Florida and Ohio, and it revolves around the resistance of Montanan officials and their constituents to buy into electronic answers. We’ve insisted on paper ballots and hand recounts at a time when many others are staking their elections—and by extension, their democracies—on machines that have proven only too prone to tampering, or less dastardly but equally disastrous, digital errors.
So while Floridians cast their ballots on touch-screen machines and rely on machines, not people, to verify the vote in the event of a recount, Montana has enacted laws requiring paper ballots and hand recounts in all elections.
“If I were a Montana voter, I’d feel proud to be doing things the way you are…just think of all the states who are doing worse,” says Douglas Jones, a national expert on voting technology at the University of Iowa.
That said, there’s always room for improvement, and some in the state are looking toward steps to further narrow the gap through which election error or fraud might slip.
Though votes in Montana are cast on paper ballots, three pieces of electronic equipment—all manufactured by Election Systems & Software, Inc., the world’s largest election technology company—facilitate elections here. In Missoula County, for example, every polling place has a Model 100 optical scanner that reads paper ballots as well as an Automark, which helps disabled voters cast ballots; at the County Courthouse is the larger Model 650 tabulating optical scanner for reading absentee ballots, according to Vickie Zeier, Missoula County Clerk and Recorder.
Zeier says the equipment became part of Missoula’s electoral process in 2002, after the Help America Vote Act changed state regulations following the 2000 presidential election debacle.
“We’ve had nothing but good success so far,” says Zeier, citing as an example the November 2005 primary election recount that confirmed a tight race between mayoral candidates.
Montana voting activists, too, cite the recent recount as cause for comfort. But not everyone has shared Missoula’s good fortune.
In June, the results of nine primary races in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, were reversed after flawed programming in ES&S optical scanners was suspected and all ballots were recounted by hand, according to the Des Moines Register. In an Arkansas senate race the same month, a tabulation error on the same machines resulted in a similar reversal, according to news reports, and in another Arkansas county, faulty ES&S scanner programming mistakenly counted 432 Democratic primary votes as Republican votes, throwing off the results and sparking a lawsuit. While ES&S spokeswoman Amanda Brown says she isn’t aware of the above problems, she responds generally by saying, “With such a widespread implementation of new technology there are going to be problems,” and that “when problems arise, they’re resolved as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
Zeier quickly and correctly points out that programming errors can be anticipated and prevented through careful, pre-election testing by elections officials. In Missoula, she says, faulty programming in the scanners has already been caught and remedied before the 2006 primary election went live.
But it’s the question of what happens should scrupulous election officials not happen to catch the error, or if hackers create sophisticated programming flaws, that concerns some.
“There’s no sense in having a paper trail if you don’t audit it,” says Sarah Busey, with the League of Women Voters.
Others, like Steve Corrick, a Missoulian who recently founded Enduring Vote Montana to spearhead voter security, and Montana Rep. Brady Wiseman, D-Bozeman, who sponsored the 2005 legislation requiring paper ballots, second the call for a random recount of paper ballots each election to verify electronically tallied results, as happens in California to 5 percent of all ballots.
“It’s a relatively low-cost thing that we can do to make sure that we don’t have errors,” says Wiseman, who plans to introduce a bill to provide for that safeguard should he win reelection in November.
While Corrick and Busey both cite the random audit as the most significant and pressing change they’d like to see toward improving election security, there remain other issues they say merit addressing. Secretary of State Brad Johnson was scheduled Thursday, Sept. 28, to hold a public hearing in Helena on changes to election law administrative rules, at which the League of Women Voters planned to offer some of its ideas.
The memory cards of optical scanners should be secure at all times, Busey says, and the machines’ wireless components, which have been easily hacked in studies, should be removed. Zeier says that while elections officials take the memory cards home the night before elections to facilitate an early start, those cards are carried in a sealed package and must be opened in the presence of other officials. And while the scanners do have wireless components, they’re turned off, Zeier says.
Corrick thinks the state should run background checks on technicians who access the scanners; currently, says state Election Deputy Elaine Graveley, ES&S supplies the state with 35 technicians on Election Day but doesn’t perform background checks. ES&S’ Brown wasn’t sure whether technicians had background checks.
Secretary of State Johnson cites Montana’s “gold standard” of paper ballots and the hard work of elections officials statewide as reasons why “the [current] system works for us.”
He doesn’t sound too excited about the prospect of random auditing or other changes that might dump more work onto counties that only recently completed massive changes.
“I think it’s reasonable to let [recent changes] settle in and let election officials get to the point where they’re comfortable and then we’ll look at fine-tuning beyond that,” Johnson says. “I just don’t see a pressing need for sweeping reform of election law in Montana.”
Should the upcoming November elections go smoothly, that evidence may provide reassurance to voters, and any problems that do emerge—especially locally, but also nationwide—might spark support for more reform come the January legislative session.
Regardless, Wiseman says, the paper trail created by paper ballots is the biggest piece of an electronic election puzzle that’s stumped officials and vexed voters in other states.
“Ultimately we have the means to find out if something went wrong because we have the paper ballots,” he says. “We don’t have to take anyone’s word for it; Montanans can verify their own ballots.”