Boulder County: Incompatible software caused ballot-counting problems (CO)
Glitch discovered after 9-month investigation
Boulder Daily Camera. By Laura Snider. September 18, 2009
With less than two months to go before this year's election, the Boulder County clerk and recorder has finally released a long-awaited report detailing what went wrong during the vote count last November.
It took election workers nearly three full days to count the ballots cast in the 2008 election after officials discovered that the optical scanners were being fooled by specks of paper dust, which were sometimes being counted as votes.
Once the problem was discovered, election workers painstakingly examined the paper versions of the ballots, reconciling voter intent with the scanners' records. Ultimately, 668,000 ballot images were visually inspected, and nearly 7,000 phantom votes were found and corrected.
A report released by Boulder County Clerk and Recorder Hillary Hall on Friday found that last year's counting problems can be blamed on a software problem: An incompatible device driver was installed on the county's scanning machines.
"We know what happened, and we've fixed it," Hall said. "In the process, we've gained a better understanding of our system, and we're looking forward to the election in November."
The problem with the device driver was discovered in July, after months of following other leads. Hall's first thought after the election was that the paper the ballots were printed on was the culprit. Low-quality paper could have caused more dust, gunking up the scanner lenses, and perhaps explaining why the scanners had passed a logic and accuracy test prior to the election with flying colors.
"We thought, 'Had we been given the right paper stock? Could the paper be different?'" Hall said.
From December until March, the county worked to analyze the paper with the help of Lexmark International Inc. and found no problems. So, Hall moved on to the next set of possibilities.
"We thought, 'Was there something up with the postal machine?" Hall said.
The last election saw a record number of mail-in ballots, which had been processed via a machine in the post office. So Hall took a stack of ballots down to the post office and ran them through the machines even more times than normal and, again, found nothing.
"Then we started focusing on how the images had been created, and what the (optical scanning) system was doing to the image," Hall said.
That investigation carried out with the help of Hart InterCivic, which created the Ballot Now software used by the county finally led to the discovery of the incompatible device driver.
Before each election, a certified version of the Ballot Now software must be reinstalled, Hall said. Last year, the county also installed an d version of the software that goes with the county's Kodak scanners, called the Scan Validation Tool. And when it did, the new validation tool replaced one of the drivers installed by the Ballot Now software with its own driver.
Ultimately, the new driver disrupted communication between the scanner and the ballot-counting software, causing specks of dust and other abnormalities that would normally be overlooked to be counted as phantom votes.
Hall said the problem is fixed, and she's confident that the same errors won't plague this year's election. But she also reiterated that safety measures put in place during last year's election which triggered the visual inspection of the ballots kept the election count accurate, however slow.
"It's important to remember that the accuracy was never an issue," Hall said. "What we're really talking about, what this report does, is speak to the timeliness."
In recent years, Boulder County elections have been notoriously slow for a variety of reasons. In 2004, the final count was also delayed for nearly three days because of a problem with over-inked ballots.
Election watchdog Al Kolwicz, a member of the Colorado Voter Group's Board of Trustees, said he is not confident that this year's elections will be better, even if the issue with the device driver is fixed.
"I have not seen anything that would give me any reason to believe that the election is going to run smoothly," he said.
For Kolwicz, the fact that one device driver incompatibility a problem that proved difficult and time-consuming to find could cause such large problems does not inspire confidence, especially given that the machines and their software passed rigorous state inspection before election night.
"There were thousands of dollars spent to ensure that this kind of problem that was exhibited didn't happen," he said. "If it's possible to circumvent that procedure (with an incompatible device driver), what could be happening with the counting software?"