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Working out the kinks

Untangling HAVA for easier, accurate voting



The most important decision former Montana secretary of state and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate Bob Brown made last year may actually have been a decision he didn’t make: Brown decided not to certify any direct recording equipment (DRE) until concerns over the touchscreen voting machines’ security could be resolved. In moving cautiously, Brown showed significantly more restraint than, say, Georgia, which adopted the new technology whole hog and now uses DRE machines statewide.

As computer scientists and critics of paperless voting feared, the 2004 elections were rife with technical difficulties in several states, and votes were miscounted or lost forever with no paper trail other than a machine printing out the same incorrect voting record over and over. Probably the most dramatic example came from Hinds County, Miss., where digital touchscreen machines malfunctioned so severely that the intent of local voters was undiscernable. As a result, the county’s entire election will undergo a “do-over” Thursday, Feb. 10.

With such reports coming in, Brown’s original intent to “go slow” may turn into a complete “no go” for paperless voting in Montana.

“Now that they’ve been used, everybody around the country is looking at DREs differently than when they were first being promoted by vendors, from the League of Women Voters to election officials,” says Teresa Jacobs, with Missoula’s League of Women Voters (LWV). Nationally, the League originally said DRE technology would not necessarily require a voter-verified paper trail, but after a barrage of feedback from local chapters, the League has backed away from that position, Jacobs says.

The League isn’t alone in its growing skepticism about paperless voting. Elaine Gravely is Montana’s deputy secretary of state for elections and has worked in elections for more than 15 years. Gravely’s excitement about DREs has waned significantly—to the point that the state is now looking for another way to accurately record and, if necessary, recount Montanans’ votes.

Gravely explains that the state “originally looked at DRE” as a system with which disabled voters might cast their own votes. “There was a blind lady here who said, ‘Elaine, you just gave me Christmas all over again.’”

“But,” Gravely adds, “there was no paper or audit trail, and Montana is looking to have both of those.”

To that end, Gravely says, the secretary of state’s office is now looking into a type of voting machine known as AutoMark. AutoMark systems are compatible with the optical scan technology currently used in most of Montana. The main difference is that AutoMark voters are presented with a synthesized voice guide, and the machine fills in the optical scan ballot’s ovals rather than relying on the voter to fill in ovals manually—an impossibility for some disabled voters. AutoMark’s advantage, Gravely says, is that it does not allow overvotes. In such a case, the machine tells voters, “Oops, you already voted for governor. Would you like to change your vote?” or words to that effect. Post-vote, the AutoMark reads back all of a voter’s choices and then spits out a ballot, providing a paper trail and a tool for audits.

The machines cost around $5,000, which Gravely says is comparable to DRE.

AutoMark machines don’t necessarily offer blanket protection against election troubles, however. In the 2000 election, dysfunctional voter registration databases were responsible for blocking between 1.5 and 3 million votes that should legally have been cast, according to Scientific American. Under HAVA, Montana must implement a statewide electronic database by next year. The state will meet with database vendors in coming weeks to consider opposing bids.

“The statewide voter registration database will direct how we manage elections,” says Missoula County Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer Vickie Zeier, who serves on the secretary of state’s election task force and IT committee, as well as the state HAVA committee and the federal Election Assistance Commission. Next week she’ll meet with Secretary of State Brad Johnson, who is also on the Election Assistance Commission, to begin drafting standards for Montana’s voter registration database. Montana’s standards should be finalized by the summer, she says, allowing the state to purchase new technology by the start of next year. In the meantime, Zeier is proposing a state election study commission in response to such a massive overhaul in Montana’s election procedures.

“When there are 96 election bills in the Legislature, that tells you there are some issues,” Zeier says.

Proposed legislation ranges from the obscure—a bill from Sen. Kim Gillan, D-Billings, would allow the counting of absentee ballots cast by voters who die after voting but before Election Day—to the far-reaching. Senate Majority Leader Jon Ellingson, D-Missoula, has drafted a bill that would allow watchdogs to monitor election software and require paper trails for all Montana ballots.

Also, Senate Bill 234 from Helena’s Mike Cooney, a former Montana secretary of state and current Democratic senator, would make it easier for people to vote without having an ID at the polls.

Cooney says the HAVA money spent last election on public service announcements reminding voters to carry ID may not be available in the future, and that the requirement, which goes above and beyond what HAVA mandates, is “excessive and unnecessary.”

“I’m all for voting being as perfect as possible, but [the ID requirement] is overkill, and it will drive voters away,” Cooney says.

Which voting systems and database software Montana eventually decides to purchase remains to be seen, but paperless touchscreen DREs seem to be falling out of favor with the state’s election decision-makers in the wake of reported malfunctions from around the country.

“I still support some type of a mechanism for the disabled,” Zeier says. “But do I think they have to have a paper trail? Definitely.”

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