Score one for the machines

Your Secretary of State, Jim Condos, has released the numbers from an audit of optical scanning machines in four randomly-selected Vermont towns. And the results were rather strikingly precise (with one small caveat, which I will get to later): The machines were accurate to within a couple of votes in almost every case.

Vote tabulations by machine were re-checked by hand count in Barre Town, Brandon, Essex, and Newfane, in the races for Congress and Treasurer. For instance, in Newfane, Peter Welch gained a single vote in the audit, while the other four candidates’ totals were unchanged. And in the Barre Town vote for Treasurer, Beth Pearce lost two votes, Jessy Diamondstone gained one, and the totals for Wendy Wilton and Don Schramm were unchanged.

“Good news,” Condos told GMD. “It’s a good thing to do the audits; it ensures the reliability of the system.”

There was one exception to the near-perfecct performance of the machines, and the primary cause was human error.

After the jump: the problem with write-ins, and the push for more scanners.

The only inaccuracies larger than a vote or two were in some tallies of write-in votes. The worst (so to speak) was in the Barre Town count for Treasurer; the machine reported 3 write-in votes and 102 blank ballots, while the audit detected 14 write-ins and only 85 blanks. (Other towns were much closer the mark; Brandon and Newfane had the write-in and “blank” tallies correct within a vote or two.)

The problem, says Condos, begins when a small number of voters write in a candidate’s name but fail to color in the oval. The machines only read the ovals, so those ballots are counted as blank. After the machines tabulate the results (which takes only a few minutes after the polls close), poll workers are supposed to examine the ballots to check for write-ins. Judging from the (very small sample size) results of the audit, it appears that some towns do a better job of cross-checking than others. “We send instructions every year about how to read the ballots,” said Condos with a hint of a sigh. “But we have a very manual election system.”

It seems clear that he’d like to make the system a little bit less manual. “Last year, the House passed a bill that would mandate every town with more than 1,000 voters to use scanners,” he notes. The bill died in the Senate. “The state would have paid for the machines, with federal funds through HAVA [the Help America Vote Act].”

The Legislature failed to act on a variety of reforms to election and campaign reform laws in the last session; Condos is hoping for better things next time.

And, lest we confuse Vermont’s machines with, say, those Diebold thingies in Ohio, Condos reminds us that Vermont law requires a paper trail throughout the process, so everything can be checked and rechecked if need be.  

6 thoughts on “Score one for the machines

  1. To be clear, Vermont uses the AccuVote ES 2000 optical scan tabulators made by “Premier Election Solutions”.

    And by “Premier Election Solutions”, I mean “Diebold”:

    They may not be the touchscreen models that Ohio had, but they’re still subject to tampering if the appropriate precautions aren’t taken.

    Mr. Condos was fairly dismissive when presented with a straightforward set of steps that could be taken to mitigate any issues that could result from tampering.


  2. “Vermont” doesn’t use anything.  In precincts of small size, such as mine, we still hand count.  And keep in mind that there are still paper ballots with the optical tabulators, so there is inherently an audit trail.  Don’t bee too dismissive yourself…

  3. Apologies for not being more precise.

    While Vermont does not mandate such devices for every township, those that do (the way I understand it) use the ES 2000. As it stands (and as the article explained), citizens still have the ability to choose whether or not their town will perform a hand count or use a tabulator. Calais has such a question coming up at their town meeting in 2013.

    I agree that the audit trail is crucial, and I couldn’t imagine not having the paper ballots as a backup, but the probability that the audit will pick up election-affecting levels of tampering is lower than I’m comfortable with.  

  4. How would we pick up tampering in any fashion, hand count or not?  So long as people have an actual ballot and humans have to either count or feed the machines, there are possible fail points and actual check points.  I don’t glibly dismiss the potential for fraud, but it’s less likely when there are physical ballots that can be verified by voters, audits and recounts.

    The scary part about Diebold is not that it makes machines, but that it makes machines which have absolutely no audit trail and are used by Secretaries of State with lower ethical standards than Jim Condos.

  5. To give proper credit, these steps were originally proposed by Alexandra Thayer of Plainfield, but later endorsed by me and two of my colleagues in a letter and an email to the Secretary of State’s office.

    1. Require that the Elections Division be informed of problems with the optical scanner memory cards and/or tabulator as such problems occur and prior to LHS [Associates, a corporation in Massachusetts] being contacted.

    2. Require that city/town election officials fill out Form A for problems with both memory cards and tabulators and correct Election Day Procedures at page 5-3 to apply to both memory cards as well as tabulators.

    3. Require that city/town election officials begin to fill out Form A for documenting the nature of problems with the memory cards and/or tabulators immediately upon becoming aware of such a problem (rather than later when memory may not be precise).

    4. Require that LHS staff complete Form B contemporaneously with their work.

    5. Require that both city/town elections officials and LHS staff transmit Forms A and B to the Secretary of State elections staff immediately either by FAX or electronically.

    6. Require that elections division staff have a procedure for suspending the use of optical scanners in a municipality and/or across the state, when problems with memory cards and/or tabulators reaches a threshold which warrants suspension.

    7. Require that you, as Secretary of State, be contemporaneously informed when problems with memory card and/or tabulators reaches a certain level.

    8. Require that the elections divisions submit a report to you by the Friday after an election regarding the functioning of memory cards and optical scanners and set out in this report any problems experienced and the correction undertaken.

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