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Fact Checking The Opponents of Paper Ballots In New Mexico PDF  | Print |  Email
By Warren Stewart, VoteTrustUSA   
February 12, 2006
With the support of Governor Richardson, Attorney General Patricia Madrid and Secretary of State Rebecca Vigil-Giron, the proposal for a statewide paper ballot optical scan voting system in New Mexico is moving inexorably through the short state legislative session despite the best efforts of a coalition of opponents, notably lobbyists representing the voting machine vendor with the most to lose and a county clerk who has invested millions in their equipment, along with opposition party legislators. The Governor’s proposal that all voting systems in the state use a paper ballot marked by the voter is embodied in bills introduced in each chamber – HB 430 in the House and SB 295 in the Senate. Both bills worked their way through the committee process this week and are poised for floor votes.

Leading the opposition has been Sequoia Voting Systems, which has plenty to lose. Unlike Election Systems and Software (ES&S), their competitor for the state’s lucrative voting system contract, Sequoia does not offer a ballot-marking device to provide independent voting for disabled New Mexicans while retaining a paper based systems that allows for independent verification of vote totals. Sequoia has other problems, like the fact that none of their equipment has yet been certified to the current federal voting system standards, though company official continue to maintain, as they have for over a year, that such certification is imminent. Then there’s the fact that their equipment is subject to a temporary restraining order and currently cannot be purchased by the state.

Sequoia’s even more influential representative this week was Bernalillo County Clerk Mary Herrera (pictured at right), who is also running for the office of Secretary of State, where she would be in charge of the entire state’s elections. (Vigil-Giron will be leaving this year because of term limitations.) On Tuesday, Herrera delivered a letter to the Governor’s representative on the New Mexico Judicial Standards Commission desperately attacking the ES&S AutoMARK ballot-marking device. Her dogged opposition to the AutoMARK and the possibility of elections in which the voter’s choices can at least potentially be determined without the use of Sequoia’s (or any other vendor’s) proprietary software was not inhibited by a reliance on fact. In the past, such misinformation from the county clerk of the state's largest county might have been left uncorrected and held sway with legislators. Fortunately for democracy, election integrity activists from Verified Voting New Mexico and United Voters of New Mexico were paying attention and delivered a response to Herrera’s letter.


In her letter Herrera alleged that “The Florida Secretary of State did not certify the AutoMark due to the apparatus' inability to mark a two or three page ballot”. In fact, the entirely specious reason given by the Florida Division of Elections for denying certification to the Automark turned on an obscure argument that for a multi page ballot the disabled voter would be unable to review the entire ballot for undervote/overvotes as the last act before casting the ballot the voter has to review, though they could, of course review each page individually (See Florida Grasps At Straws To Prevent Paper Ballots).

 

Florida's illogical decision confused ballot marking with ballot casting - the AutoMARK does not cast ballots, it marks them. The AutoMARK offers a ballot review screen one page at a time rather than all at once at the end. The job of offering a final over-vote review is already provided by the optical scan machine which actually casts the ballot. There is no defect in the AutoMARK itself anymore that there is in the pen a voter might use to mark the ballot -  pens don't offer review screens either since the marked ballot is the review "screen".

 

In any case, the Florida decertification has nothing to do with AutoMARK's purported inability to handle a multi page ballot – disabled voters CAN mark multiple page ballots with the AutoMARK. Like Herrera and her friends at Sequoia, Florida has been fighting the Automark, and the possibility of paper based elections that it provides, for over a year. Herrera's statement is completely false.

Herrera then alleges that “The M-100 ES&S precinct tabulator can hold up to ten ballot combinations per unit in theory”. She then grossly overestimates the number of M-100s required when she states “Bernalillo County will require 1105 M-100 voting tabulators." However, according to ES&S, the M-100 can handle up to 400 ballot combinations.

The M-100 has two modes of operation. One mode is precinct-resolution, which can handle 10 precincts with up to 40 different parties or ballot variations. In 2004, Bernallio county offered voters 13 early voting polling places. Thus, using precinct-resolution mode, Herrera’s estimate of 1105 machines is nearly double the actual number of early voting machines required (559).

 

But why would anyone choose to use the precinct-resolution mode for early voting? In the other mode of operation - county-resolution - the machines can handle not 10 but 400 ballot combinations. Thus, handling Bernalillo county’s 430 precincts would require only no more than two M-100s per early voting polling place - a total of 26 machines for the entire county. Additionally, county-resolution mode would require a subsequent scan using one M-650 central count tabulator to breakdown the county-wide early-vote totals by legislative district and by precinct.

Moreover, there is no reason that county clerks must use the model M-100 at the early voting stations. The M-650 ballot counter, already used for absentee and early voting in many states, has no practical limits on the precint-per-machine. Herrera dismisses this option stating, without basis, that the M-650 would negate the process of the voter marking and verifying their own ballots. Optical scanners do not mark ballots, they merely count them – the voter marks the ballot either with a pen, or through the use of the AutoMARK.

In her letter, Herrera also made the confusing assertion that the M-650, normally used for absentee ballot counting, will threaten voter secrecy since the ballots will be batch-scanned after collection in a ballot box rather than scanned in real-time as each voter inserts them. While real-time scanning is preferable when practical, central count scanning is how absentee ballots have been and will continue to be counted and it is also the procedure used when any precinct machine malfunctions: ballots are collected and bulk scanned. Apparently Herrera does not even hold to her own rationale on this point because a few sentences later she urges considering “all elections be conducted by mail” which would mean that all ballots would be batch-scanned absentee ballots and never even granted the security and anonymity of the time-honored ballot box at all.

Further demonstrating how desperate she is to undermine the AutoMARK, Herrera's letter also raised a series of easily-dismissed minor issues. For example, the interval required for the Automark to recognize a ballot, which the clerk laments without any specificity, is ultimately insignificant compared to the typical time a voter may wait in line, check in, go through the voting process or review their verifiable paper ballot.

Forgotten in Herrera’s letter are the interests of the voters that the upgrades are intended to serve. In promoting his proposal for a statewide paper ballot optical scan voting system, Gov. Richardson has argued that a standardized voting system in New Mexico can help restore public confidence in elections by providing a paper ballot, which should assure voters their ballots were cast properly. In a January press release he said "it makes no sense to spend four-times the money, and end up with the same complicated mix of voting systems that only frustrate the voting public, complicate the efforts of our dedicated precinct boards, and worse, discourage New Mexicans from going to the polls".

Also forgotten are the preferences of New Mexico’s disabled voters that. One of the primary purposes of HAVA was to provide persons with visual impairment or other disabilities the ability to vote independently through such accommodations as speech output or enlarged print. Over the weekend, Greg Trapp, Executive Director of the New Mexico Commission for the Blind wrote to the Santa Fe New Mexican in eloquent support of the AutoMARK and the use of paper ballots that it allows:

Three systems were recommended as meeting HAVA requirements: ES&S Ivotronics; Sequoia AVC Edge; and ES&S AutoMark. The state faced the problem that the Ivotronics and Sequoia systems required retrofitting to meet a state law mandating a "verified paper trail," which responded to concerns that Direct Recording Electronic voting systems were vulnerable to tampering and could not be audited in the same way as traditional paper ballots.

The paper ballot system was deemed the most secure and auditable available. Allegations that it costs more do not consider the cost of retrofitting DRE machines, of election recounts, of contested elections. Cost aside, how can we place a price on a single vote or on the security of our democracy?
With paper ballots New Mexicans will be more confident of recovery from mistakes. Regardless of whether it’s an all electronic election or a paper ballot election, no one should expect every election to be without mistakes. The fundamental distinction is that electronic elections require perfection of execution at every step because error detection and recovery is almost impossible. Regardless of how automation might exclude some kinds of mistakes there are plenty of new ones it introduces. Since, as Herrera points out, there will always be errors, we need a way to tell them apart and a means of detecting them and a publicly transparent method of verifying election results when they are called into question.
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