I have voted in three cities — Philadelphia, New York, and Seattle — and to tell the truth, I miss those clunky, lever machines back East. Those big old booths with their dozens of levers made casting your vote feel physical and real; pulling that big lever at the end, hearing all those gears click into place and that curtain grind open, was the electoral equivalent of cracking your knuckles, or sinking your teeth into a thick, crusty sandwich… it delivered an odd, satisfying finality that you just don’t get from silently feeding your ballot into a scanner.
Ah well, the days of the voting machine are passing by. They are hulking and cumbersome, prone to breakdowns, and expensive to maintain, transport and warehouse. And while my personal experience as a poll worker assures me that they are exceedingly difficult to tamper with, recent events have left me more than a little uncomfortable with their inherent lack of an audit trail.
New York State is preparing legislation that would phase out mechanical voting machines, and replace them with newer technologies. Legislators will rightly require touch-screen voting machines to produce voter-verifiable paper trails, but as a recent New York Times editorial laments, they appear to be caving to lobbyists by ignoring a more reliable, cost-effect voting technology: good old, optical scan.
The big voting machine companies, which are well connected politically, are aggressively pushing touch-screen voting. These A.T.M.-style machines make a lot of sense for the manufacturers because they are expensive and need to be replaced frequently. But touch-screen machines are highly vulnerable to being hacked or maliciously programmed to change votes.
Security concerns should give Washingtonians pause as we rush towards voting reform in the wake of a disputed election whose main problem was its extraordinary closeness. Bev Harris of BlackBoxVoting.org has made a sport of demonstrating to election officials how quickly their systems can be hacked. And Paul Lehto and Jeffrey Hoffman have produced a 29-page study documenting touch-screen irregularities in Snohomish County, that they say may have cost Christine Gregoire thousands of votes.
Given security concerns and high costs, the NY Times suggests that touch-screen machines should not be used at all.
The best voting technology now available uses optical scanning. These machines work like a standardized test. Voters mark their choices on a paper form, which is then counted by a computer. The paper ballots are kept, becoming the official record of the election. They can be recounted, and if there is a discrepancy between them and the machine count, the paper ballots are the final word.
Optical-scan machines produce a better paper record than touch-screen machines because it is one the voter has actually filled out, not a receipt that the voter must check for accuracy. Optical-scan machines are also far cheaper than touch-screens. Their relatively low cost will be welcomed by taxpayers, of course, but it also has a direct impact on elections. Because touch-screen machines are so expensive, localities are likely to buy too few, leading to long lines at the polls.
Of course, all this may end up being a moot point in Washington state, where two-thirds of the electorate chose to vote absentee during the last election; as this trend continues, the rationale for maintaining two distinct voting systems becomes less and less tenable. It seems likely that we will inevitably follow Oregon to an all vote-by-mail system, thus making Snohomish and Yakima counties’ spanking new touch-screen machines prematurely obsolete.
I’ll miss going to the polling place at least as much as I miss cranking the lever on those hulking, old machines. But at least I’ll be assured that my ballot will be counted using the most accurate and auditable voting technology available today: optical scan.