The State of New Jersey passed a law in July 2005 requiring voter-verified paper records for direct recording electronic (DRE) voting systems by January of 2008. Most of the systems in use in the state at the time the bill was signed into law had no available printer with which the counties could retrofit. However, when the market demands, vendors typically will find a way to comply.
Last week New Jersey reported on tests of three printers submitted for consideration to meet the states requirements. Two were from Sequoia -- one for the Advantage electronic voting machines used in most of the State's jurisdictions, and one for the newer Edge e-voting machines used in Salem County . The printers are said to come at a price tag of some $2000 apiece -- this may or may not take into consideration the cost of additional system retrofits to allow the printers to be attached. The third printer tested was for Avante.
The State found a number of exceptions -- areas in which the printers, in their determination, did not comply fully with the requirements as stated. There were several which are of concern, and at least one which should render the system unusable.
The biggest problem could be one that may not look like much, at first glance. The requirement is for the DRE system to stop recording votes if the paper malfunctions, jams, the connection between DRE and printer is lost, etc. In such an instance, the voter is allowed to vote on a different system or on an emergency paper ballot. The testers indicated exceptions for at least one system, as follows:
"If a mechanical error or malfunction occurs (such as a paper jam, running out of paper, paper torn in half, or paper inserted improperly), the DRE displays an error message on the screen to the voter, but no warning signals are sent to notify the election officials at the polling place. The DRE does not suspend voting operations. The voter has the opportunity to continue voting and cast the vote but the paper record is not printed. The vote is, however, electronically recorded." The same is true for situations where paper is low or runs out.
"Although the DRE can detect problems that may prevent paper records from being correctly displayed, printed, or stored (like paper jams or low paper), no warning signals are sent to notify the election officials at the polling place." If the failure to alert a poll-worker results in missing, jammed or damaged voter-verified paper records, and voters can continue to cast ballots without realizing the problem, that means election officials will be unable to confirm the accuracy of the electronic vote count, either through an audit or a recount. (New Jersey is currently working on legislation to require random manual audits.)
Given that voter-verified paper records are new to many voters and to poll workers, and notification to voters about the importance of checking the paper record may be uneven or insufficient, it is crucial that the basic safeguard of an alarm to let an election judge or poll worker know about problems with the printer be fully functional. According to these tests, that safeguard is not in place.
Another exception common to two of the systems tested was particularly interesting. In many states, voters get up to three chances to mark their ballot correctly. You can spoil a ballot, try again, spoil it a second time, but the third try is your last one, typically. This is true in New Jersey as well.
Here's how it would work on an e-voting systems like the ones tested: When you are just about ready to cast your vote after marking your choices on the electronic voting machine, the system prints a voter-verifiable paper record -- so that you can review it, and affirm that your choices were accurately recorded. If you felt it was incorrect, you can "cancel" that record and go back to any of the contests on the ballot using the electronic machine, and re-select. Ready again to cast your ballot? Checking the paper record, you see it still doesn't reflect what you want. You cancel a second time.
Now you're on your last try, so you mark your choices carefully. You're ready to cast, but the voter-verified paper record prints -- and then quickly drops into the locked receptacle, too quickly for you to have the opportunity to review it.
Now, the regulations require that if the voter-verified paper record does not record accurately, the machine must immediately be taken out of service, and that voter gets to vote on a machine that works. If your check and re-check of the paper record resulted in you cancelling it because it did not seem to record your choices accurately (rather than because you missed something), you would get to vote on a different machine --one that was recording your choices faithfully-- and that malfunctioning one would be taken out of service.
So the State's testers correctly noted this hasty "print-and-disappear-from-view" record as an exception in their report. The voter must be able to affirm, whether it is the third try or the first, that his or her choices were accurately recorded. That's the whole point of the "voter-verifiable" paper record. You get to verify. That's the document that is used in recounts or in audits to check the voting system for accuracy, so if you don't get to see it, the audit cannot be legitimate. It's that simple.
Now for the chilling part: Sequoia's New Jersey law firm came back with a posted response to the various exceptions, and about this one they state:
"Since no further amendment of the vote is possible under the Regulations, an opportunity to confirm the third choice is irrelevant and superfluous."
Thus the one OFFICIAL record of your vote to be used in recounts and audits may or may not be printed correctly, but you don't get to check.
It's of deep concern that this vendor's representation seems not to grasp the significance of the voter-verified paper record. It's not (just) to make voters feel better about the voting system, it's there to provide a way to check the tally for accuracy. Failure to make it available to the voter for review eliminates that failsafe.
When using a paper ballot, you, the voter, get to decide when you're ready to cast it -- the equipment doesn't snatch it away before you get to review it.
These concerns, coupled with the cost of the printers, bring to mind a serious issue. New Jersey spent, as best we can calculate, somewhere between $70 and $90 million for these systems, when you add in the cost of the printers. They spent this money on a system which does not provide dual switch input for voters with disabilities relating to mobility and manual dexterity. They spent it on a system which does not provide audio readback from the paper ballot for voters with visual disabilities who want to be able to review their ballot for accuracy.1 They spent it on a system known to have higher than usual residual vote rates.2
They could have had paper optical scan ballots and ballot-marking devices in every polling place for 1/2 to 1/3 of that cost, around $34.5 million. Don't throw good money after bad, New Jersey. It's still not too late.
1. The NJIT reports indicated that the systems must meet Federal and State standards for accessibility, which shall include, but are not limited to, an audio component that shall accurately relay the information printed on the paper ballot to the voter. However, the methodology for testing to this standard is merely to run a mock election to check the accuracy of the information printed in that particular mock election. It does not seek to ensure that the audio stream relay the information from the paper itself. Thus a voter who is unable to visually review the paper record in an actual election is only able to audibly review the electronic record and has no way to know if the paper was printed correctly.
2. The residual vote rate on bottom-of-ticket items was a stunning five times higher on NJ’s full-face DREs than on paging DREs in a recent study. Even a highly publicized top of ticket Senate race showed a full percentage point worse performance on the full-face DREs.
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