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Big Questions about Voting Machines  (VA)

Julia O'Donoghue   Reston Connection   18 March 2009

After the polls closed last week, one voting machine reported that 724 people had used it, even though officials at the Fairview precinct had recorded only 707 people walking through the door. There was also another voting machine at Fairview, which had already tallied 348 of the 707 votes.

Fairfax County election officials ultimately concluded that supervisor John Cook (R) defeated at-large school board member Ilryong Moon (D) by a slim margin of 89 votes in the Braddock Districtís special election March 10.

But for almost 24 hours, officials could not call the raceís outcome or even determine the number of ballots cast in the election because of the malfunctioning machine at the Fairview precinct in Fairfax Station.

When the problematic machine was cracked open the day after the election, a more appropriate number of votes, 359, showed up on a roll of tape in the "ballot log" and among the "ballot images," or digital photographs taken of each vote cast on the machine.

Election officials are still unsure of what caused the voting machine to report the wrong number of votes in the first place.

"Once we ran the ballot log and the ballot images, we saw that there were 359 actual votes on the machine. We just donít know why the machine tallied up 724. Ö We have one machine with an anomaly and we donít know what caused it," said Rokey Suleman, Fairfax County registrar. So far, no one has disputed the results.

By law, Fairfax County is not allowed to touch or tamper with the voting machine for 30 days following the election. At the conclusion of the waiting period, Suleman intends to have the problematic machine investigated to determine what might have gone wrong, he said.

"Nothing like this has ever occurred before. We donít know if the machine malfunctioned or if we did something wrong," said Suleman.

LAST WEEKíS voting machine problems are a sign of bigger problems ahead, said cyber security expert Jeremy Epstein and other computer scientists.

Fairfax Countyís electronic voting machines produce no ballots or paper trail and it would be impossible to verify the number votes or what they were cast for if an electronic voting machine malfunctioned and voting information could not be retrieved. There is no hard copy or paper "back up" system if something goes wrong.

"We are entirely reliant on the software that is in the electronic voting machines to function correctly. Ö When you have been writing software for 25 years, you know that is not a good thing to do," said Epstein, senior computer scientist with the Cyber Security Research and Development Center at SRI International in Arlington.

Epstein, a Braddock District resident, said an overwhelming majority of computer scientists believe there should be a paper trail for elections that can be independently verified.

"There have been many many bugs in election software over the years and, one day we may not be able to recover from it. This bug may have affected past elections and nobody ever noticed it before. It could have given the wrong number of votes to the wrong candidate and nobody noticed," said Epstein, who advocates for voting machine security both nationally and locally.

Epstein and other advocates prefer optical scan voting machines, which require people to fill out a paper ballot with a pencil before running it through a scanning tallying system. The optical scan machines leave a verifiable paper trail.

DURING LAST Novemberís presidential and congressional elections, Fairfax County equipped each polling station with at least one optical scan machine, and gave people the choice of using either an electronic device or the optical scan to record their votes.

But the current county budget crunch led election officials to forego using optical scan machines and to rely entirely on electronic voting machines during the three special elections that have taken place in Fairfax County in 2009. Suleman said he also intends to only use electronic voting machines with no paper options or backup during the Democratic primary for statewide races in June and the contentious general elections, including the Governorís race, in November.

"We are only using the electronic voting machines right now because of costs. We donít have money right now for paper ballots. Ö The issue is the cost of paper. You have to understand that paper is expensive," said Suleman.

ACCORDING TO Fairfax County budget documents, the three 2009 special elections Ė including a House of Delegates race that affected one precinct, a countywide chairmanís race in February and the Braddock election Ė have cost the locality an extra $300,000 this year.

But printing paper ballots for the county chairmanís race alone could have driven up the price tag another $200,000, said Suleman. In Novemberís presidential election, the county paid approximately 29 cents for every ballot it printed.

If the county is offering paper ballots to voters, it is prudent to have enough to cover a voter turnout 100 percent, plus a little, even though that number of people is very unlikely to turn up at the polls, said Suleman.

According to county records, the voter turnout in Novemberís presidential election, which was regarded as high, was 78.7 percent. In last monthís special election for county chairman, it was 16.1 percent.
"That is a tremendous amount of waste in paper but you have to be prepared for every voter to show up at the polls," said Suleman.

For example, Suleman had predicted that the special election in Braddock District would produce a voter turnout of 15 percent or less. Instead, turnout was 18.6 percent. What if he had ordered too few ballots?
"Do we cut off the number of ballots at 20 percent because special elections never have a turnout of more than 20 percent? What if that is wrong?" said Suleman.

"If you over-order ballots, which you should because you donít know how many you are going to use, you are going to be criticized for all the waste. Ö You are damned if you do and damned if you donít," he said.

STILL there are people who said they would be more comfortable with some wasted paper ballots than electronic voting machines.

"I am not surprised that it is a little bit more expensive if you consider how many people in Fairfax County are going to cast votes in the governorís race. Ö It is a little surprising to me that it costs $200,000 for 400,000 sheets of paper," said Scott Surovell, chairman of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee.

The local Democratic committee passed a resolution encouraging people to use the optical scan machines during last fallís presidential election because of concerns about the electronic voting machines.

Following the Braddock District election, he now expects the organization to look at a resolution calling for Fairfax County to do away with using its electronic voting machines altogether.

"It is the only way to ensure that there is paper trail that reflects the votersí intent. Ö The biggest concern is that the voting machines can have malfunctions as they get older and may not reflect the votersí intent or record the votes correctly," said Surovell.

The county Democratic chairman said he is particularly alarmed that no one, including Fairfax staff, has been able to identify what went wrong with the problematic voting machine in the Braddock District election.

"That machine was tested by the county before it was put in a polling place and nobody knew there was a problem. Ö Nobody has been able to explain what happened and why that machine was incapable of tabulating the votes that were in it," said Surovell.

"I am concerned that this will be treated as a small anomaly," he added.

Epstein, who talks to people from all over the country about issues regarding voting machines, said the voting machine malfunction in the Braddock district election could be the most serious malfunction noticed in the country so far.

"Nobody in the United States has seen anything like this. It is screaming and shouting that something is definitely wrong. Ö I wasnít surprised that [the malfunction happened] but I was surprised how egregiously wrong it was," he said.

AS A SECONDARY issue, Surovell said he is also concerned about going through next fallís elections with only electronic voting machines because they take longer for voters to use than optical scan machines.

In November 2008, both Surovell and Suleman credited some of the success of the Presidential Election Day and its huge turnout to the fact that voters were given the option to use optical scan machines, allowing lines to move more quickly.

Democrats expect a large turnout next November, especially for the governorís race, Surovell said. He wants the county to do as much as possible to avoid long lines at polling stations, which can discourage people from voting.

Unlike this past November, people may not be given the same opportunities next fall to vote absentee at their local government center, which also assisted several residents in avoiding long lines on Novemberís election day. Due to budget cuts, those who need to vote early may have to either mail in their absentee ballot or vote at the Fairfax County Government Center in the western part of the county.

"I am worried about moving people through the line on Election Day [in November 2009]. The registrarís office has proposed cutting out all satellite absentee voting which will make the lines on election day horrific. We have had satellite absentee voting for five years or longer," said Surovell.

EVEN WITH the machine malfunction, Suleman said he is happy with the electronic voting system in place in Fairfax County.

"I have no doubt that the machines we have right now are accurate. I am 100 percent confident that the machines work. Ö We donít know what happened with that one machine but all of the [machineís] back up programs worked," said Suleman.

Given a choice, Suleman did say he would prefer to use electronic voting machines that print out a "receipt" of a personís vote, which would be kept by election officials as a back up to the electronic recordation.

Some electronic voting machines produce a "paper trail" at relatively low cost but are not allowed currently under Virginia law, he said.

"I suggested as a compromise we starting allowing those machines in Virginia but the anti-electronic voting machine people donít want electronic voting machines period," said Suleman.

EVENTUALLY, Fairfax will have to move way from electronic voting machines and toward an entirely optical scan system, said Suleman.

In 2007, Clifton Del. Tim Hugo (R-40)
moved a bill through the Virginia General Assembly that prohibited localities from purchasing new electronic voting machines, which essentially requires them to buy optical scan equipment when the electronic devices break down.

Following the 2000 presidential election problems in Florida, Hugo chaired a bipartisan commission in Virginia that investigated the risks of electronic voting machine equipment.

In addition to the law that passed, Hugo also introduced several other bills to limit the use of electronic voting machines that did not make it through the General Assembly. He said several members of his commission Ė ranging from liberal Democrats to conservative Republicans Ė felt more comfortable with the optical scan equipment.

"As someone who has both won and lost an election, it is ok to lose but you need to know that you truly lost. Ö It will ensure the integrity of the voting system and the integrity of each vote to have a paper ballot," said Hugo.

"If the voter is not sure and doesnít feel confident that his vote was counted, then he will lose confidence in the entire system," he added.



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