Voting Machines Criticized, State Says Bugs Gone
By Dan McKay
Albuquerque Journal Staff Writer 26 September 2004
Jim Noel pored over election results two years ago, trying to understand his mistake.
As an attorney for the Democratic Party, Noel was examining records several days after the election that showed that about 48,000 people had voted early in Bernalillo County. The unofficial election results, however, tallied only 36,000 votes in the governor's race.
"It didn't make any sense," Noel said last week in recalling the incident.
As it turned out, Noel wasn't mistaken. The 12,000-vote discrepancy was caused by a software glitch related to the use of new electronic "touch-screen" voting machines. The problem was fixed after Noel alerted election workers.
Could it happen again this year? Election officials say no.
But how your vote is recorded— on an electronic machine or on a paper ballot— could very well be the next controversy to rock this year's election season.
The turbulent race for New Mexico's five electoral votes has already involved fights over who's allowed on the ballot, allegations of fraudulent voter registrations and a clash over which voters must show identification at the polls.
"I don't expect people to stop fighting until after the election is over— and possibly not even then," said Denise Lamb, director of the state elections bureau.
No paper trail
The 12,000-vote discrepancy that stalled certification of results two years ago has become an anecdote in the nationwide fight over the reliability of electronic voting machines.
Proponents say the machines are a big improvement over the "hanging chad" punch-ballot problem that tied up Florida's vote-counting process in the last presidential election.
But skeptics say electronic machines— such as the touch-screens used in some New Mexico counties— lack a "verifiable" paper trail documenting every ballot that is cast.
The touch-screens and electronic "Shouptronic" voting machines used throughout much of New Mexico don't produce the kind of paper records that skeptics want.
In fact, the conservative Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C., gave New Mexico a "D-minus" in an "Election Day Preparedness Scorecard" released this month.
Electronic voting machines in Nevada got an A-plus because they produce paper records that can be used to check the machines' accuracy.
Overall, the nation "can do better," said Jill Farrell, a spokeswoman for the foundation. "A printer adds a necessary safeguard. A voter-verified paper ballot, properly used, is not only a safeguard, it's a deterrent against certain types of fraud."
Charlie Strauss, co-founder of the advocacy group Verified Voting New Mexico, said officials are moving too fast to put the touch-screen systems in place.
The process for federal certification and pre-election testing haven't caught problems that have cropped up elsewhere, he said.
"These touch-screens by various makers around the country have been involved in hundreds and hundreds of known errors," Strauss said. "... It's very clear these systems have been rushed to market without proper testing."
The newer voting machines are bound to have unfixed bugs, said Strauss, a computer scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
"There's no reason to assume they've got them all," he said. "Look at Windows. They're still fixing bugs in Windows 95 and 98."
Supporters of touch-screens say the machines have gone through extensive testing by the federal government.
Lamb calls the debate over a paper trail "such an exasperating topic." All machines have some printing capability and there are safeguards to ensure reliability, she said. She also noted that the traditional "lever" machines used in the past had no paper.
Electronic voting machines are simpler than a personal computer, she said. "They have to do one thing and do it well."
Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera said older voting machines already produce tapes tabulating the votes cast on them. The newer touch-screen machines can retrieve— but not alter— each ballot electronically so they can be hand-tallied.
Electronic voting machines have been used in the state for about two decades.
In Bernalillo County, touch-screens are used for early voting. Shouptronics are used on Election Day and paper ballots are used for absentee voting. Throughout the state, 11 counties will use absentee-style paper ballots on Election Day.
On a Shouptronic, voters press a button next to the candidate's name and a light appears next to the candidate.
Touch-screen machines are similar to an advanced ATM, in which the voter actually touches the screen to mark their choices.
When New Mexico has had problems, the trouble has generally involved paper ballots, not electronic machines, Lamb said.
Electronic machines with printers were just certified by the federal government in the last several months— not enough time to get them certified in New Mexico, Lamb said.
Further, she added, the machines generating the most controversy nationwide are made by Diebold Election Systems. They are not used anywhere in the state.
New Mexico's procedure of "triple auditing" election results was cited by the National League of Women Voters and the federal Election Assistance Commission as a "best practice" that all states should do, Lamb said. "I think people can feel confident that their vote will be counted."
Under New Mexico's auditing system, county officials recheck election returns; a separate copy of returns is sent to the state, which also checks them; and a private accounting firm examines the results.
The post-election work includes examining print-outs that summarize the results in each precinct and making sure the number of ballots cast matches the number of people who signed in to vote.
As for the discrepancy discovered in early voting totals two years ago, Herrera and Sequoia Voting Systems— an Oakland, Calif.-based company that supplied the machines— say it shouldn't happen again.
The problem involved software that produced reports summarizing how people had voted. A newer, better version of the software is now in use, said Alfie Charles, a spokesman for Sequoia.
The 2002 trouble involved only the reporting program. None of the actual electronic ballots was lost, Charles said.
The machines can recall ballots electronically in "read-only" memory for a hand tally.
"The systems are extremely secure— more secure than a box of paper ballots ever has been," Charles said.
Regardless, post-election canvassing and auditing caught the 2002 problem, he said. "Obviously, you don't want that kind of thing to happen, but the checks and balances worked."
The Sequoia-made "Edge" touch-screen machines can have printers added to them for future election cycles if desired, Charles said.
As part of Sequoia's federal certification, its Edge touch-screen system went through hours of continuous testing in a variety of conditions— high temperatures, dry climates and charges from static electricity, Charles said. The machine must get every vote correct for certification.
Herrera said the touch-screen machines are the wave of the future. Some 50 million Americans are expected to use them in the Nov. 2 election.
The older, push-button Shouptronic machines are expected to lose their federal certification next year, Herrera said.
Jaime Diaz, Bernalillo County elections administrator, said the clerk's office may ask the county to buy 1,100 touch-screen machines to replace the Shouptronics— at a cost of about $3,200 a machine— before the 2006 elections.
Valencia, Grant, Sandoval, San Juan, Bernalillo and Doña Ana counties all have at least some touch-screen machines, Lamb said.
Regardless, Democratic and Republican attorneys across the country will be ready to battle in court after Election Day if there is reason to contest voting results. The tight presidential race predicted in New Mexico means there is at least some chance the Land of Enchantment will be subject to recounts and court fights.
Herrera said the political parties are welcome to send observers to polling places and other hot spots to watch for problems, but they must notify her in writing first.
Noel, the Democratic Party attorney, said election officials are serious about doing their jobs well, and they responded two years ago to resolve the discrepancy he found.
"I see no indication that there will be a problem with the electronic voting process," he said. "To the contrary, what I see is a team of dedicated workers at the state and county level. That's not to say we shouldn't all be vigilant to make sure there aren't any problems."
Voting Machines in New Mexico
SHOUPTRONIC AND SEQUOIA AVC: These "push-button" electronic machines have been around since at least the early 1990s. Shouptronics, for example, are used in Bernalillo County on Election Day. Voters push a button next to the candidate's name, and a light appears next to it. After finishing the ballot, the voter presses a big button at the bottom that casts the vote.
The machines produce an audit tape that tallies up all the votes for and against each item on the ballot. Each machine also keeps track of how many total voters have used it, allowing workers to check that figure against the votes cast for and against each item.
Each Shouptronic machine can also print accumulated totals for each contest.
TOUCH SCREENS: These relatively new electronic machines are used in early voting in Bernalillo County. Several other counties use them as well, mostly for early voting.
The ones certified for use in New Mexico are made by either Sequoia Voting Systems or a company called ES&S.
They are equipped with "ballot image retention" capabilities. That means the machine electronically stores each ballot that is cast. It can be brought to the screen so that workers can hand tally each ballot. The stored ballots cannot be altered, officials say.
PAPER BALLOTS: These are used mainly for absentee voting, but some counties use them on Election Day. The paper ballots are fed into an optical-scanning machine that counts votes.