Buncombe County choice of voting machines in 2006 saved votes in 2008

Letter to Buncombe County Commissioners, Asheville City Council members, and the Buncombe County Board of Elections: Buncombe County’s voting machine decision in 2006 has paid off. Buncombe County purchased new optical scan voting machines in 2006 in order to comply with state and federal laws. The county chose not to purchase the more expensive, less reliable touchscreens with a less than reliable “paper trail”.

Buncombe chose well. A professor’s study of North Carolina’s 2008 Presidential election shows that optically scanned paper ballots were better at registering the intent of the voters than touch screen voting machines. Buncombe County’s residual rate for President in 2008 was a low .8 %.

Touch Screens Show High Rate of Unrecorded Votes for President in 2008
Paper Ballots Found More Efficient at Recording Voters’ Choices
June 26, 2009 – A professor’s study of North Carolina’s 2008 Presidential election shows that optically scanned paper ballots were better at registering the intent of the voters than touch screen voting machines.

Mark Lindeman, an assistant professor of political science at Bard College in New York, found that in the 67 North Carolina counties where the voting method is optically scanned paper ballots, 0.78% of ballots failed to register a vote for President last November. The 24 counties where touch screens were the principal method of voting saw 1.36% of ballots fail to register a vote for President, a difference of over 7000 votes in the 2008 election.

“The evidence available to me indicates that in fact, optically scanned paper ballots fared better than DREs [touch screens] in recording and tabulating voter intent,” Prof. Lindeman wrote.1

Lindeman also analyzed demographic differences among the counties that might explain the higher number of unrecorded votes in the counties that used touch screens. He found, in fact, that paper ballot counties measured higher in factors such as less education and poverty that would be expected lead to a high rate of unrecorded votes, meaning that the “effect ” of touch screens on the unrecorded vote rate was even greater than the raw numbers suggest.

Voting experts believe that a small number of voters, usually less than 1%, decide deliberately not to cast a vote for President, but that if the number of ballots that show no vote for President is higher with a given voting technology, it is a sign that the technology was less easy for voters to use, or may not have functioned properly. The percentage of ballots that fail to register a vote for a given office is called the “residual vote rate.”

“DRE boosters say the residual vote rate should be lower on touch screens than on scanned paper ballots, but the performance doesn’t match the promises” said Lindeman.

Prof. Lindeman’s findings are consistent with previous studies showing that precinct-based paper ballot scanners have a lower residual vote than touch screen machines. A study of the Brennan Center for Justice showed that precinct-based optical scanners had the lowest residual vote rate of any type of technology in the 2004 Presidential election.2 In 2006, Iowa’s election results for all contested statewide races showed a consistently higher residual vote rate for touch screens than for optically scanned paper ballots.3

“Optical scan has a strong track record, and these findings just make it stronger,” said Pamela Smith of the Verified Voting Foundation. “This is why we fought so hard for optical scan back in 2005 and 2006,” said Joyce McCloy, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting. “It turns out that the lower-tech way best serves the voters,” McCloy added.

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1Professor Lindeman’s study is available at:
http://www.ncvoter.net/downloads/Lindeman_Analysis_NC08_Tech_Effect_on_Undervotes.pdf
2 The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Usability,” p. 5.
http://brennan.3cdn.net/bb59042f6839b7fee2_njm6bcl84.pdf

3“Residual Votes in Iowa November 2006,”
http://www.iowansforvotingintegrity.org/Residual Votes in Iowa November 2006.ppt

The Asheville Citizen Times ran an op/ed about the need to reform our election system to better enfranchise the voters, and technology was mentioned:

Reform would strengthen rights of voters
Robin Cape • November 29, 2009 Since N.C. rules state that a vote will be counted IF the intent of the voter can be determined, what happens if the person writes in or circles a name and does not fill in the bubble? Should determining the intent of the voter be solely dependent upon the machine’s recognition of the vote?

How do we further increase the number of write in ballots counted? Practical and inexpensive measures include better ballot design, clearer ballot language, and additionally, through voter education:

Better Ballots
By Lawrence Norden, David Kimball, Whitney Quesenbery, and Margaret Chen – 07/20/08 …when it comes to ensuring that votes are accurately recorded and tallied, there is a respectable argument that poor ballot design and confusing instructions have resulted in far more lost votes than software glitches, programming errors, or machine breakdowns. As this report demonstrates, poor ballot design and instructions have caused the loss of tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of votes in nearly every election year.

We know that good voter education works – we saw the results of voter education aimed at helping voters deal with North Carolina’s odd straight ticket voting law. Thanks to voter education ordered by the NC State Board of Elections, media attention leveraged by advocacy groups (including the NY Times), and the political campaigns (even YouTube videos) – our state cut the undervote rate for President in half of what it has been for the 2004 and the 2000 Presidential elections. [Straight ticket does not count for President http://www.ncvoter.net/straightticket.html ]

In 2005, North Carolina passed a law banning paperless voting machines following the November 2004 election debacle. The AP described the 2004 election as “A Florida-style nightmare has unfolded in North Carolina in the days since Election Day, with thousands of votes missing and the outcome of two statewide races still up in the air.” AP Newswire, Nov 13.

Paperless voting machines like those in Buncombe County had to decommissioned. Not long after North Carolina implemented our new machines, other states like Florida banned them.

States rush to dump touch-screen voting systems
States are increasingly abandoning touchscreen voting, scrapping multimillion-dollar systems purchased since 2000.
Arstechnica. August 20, 2008 It’s a good time to pick up an electronic voting machine on the cheap—provided you’re not a stickler for things like “accuracy” or “security.” States are scrapping tens of thousands of pricey touchscreen systems in response to mounting concerns about the machines’ reliability…

Touchscreen machines are becoming obsolete – voting vendors are no longer developing new systems since states around the country are banning touchscreens and scrapping the ones they have.

What happened to Buncombe’s decommissioned touchscreen machines? Buncombe’s former machines were purchased by computer scientists at Princeton U, were hacked and also reverse engineered.

Here are some reports on the first hack of Buncombe’s old machines:

For more on the “hack” of Buncombe CO’s former machines see
http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~appel/avc/
For more on the reverse engineering of Buncombe’s former machines see
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/08/12/sequoia_evoting_machine_felled/


To learn about the reverse engineering of Buncombe’s old Sequoia touchscreens, done for around $100,000:

Insecurities and Inaccuracies of the Sequoia AVC Advantage 9.00H DRE Voting Machine
Studies five machines bought from Buncombe County (North Carolina) Reverse engineering allows construction of fraudulent firmware even without access to trade-secret source code
http://citp.princeton.edu/voting/advantage/advantage-insecurities-redacted.pdf

Buncombe County voters can be proud of the voting system they have, of their County Commissioners who fought for that system, and of the County Board of Elections for implementing that system.

Best regards;

Joyce McCloy, Director
North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting

About us: The North Carolina Coalition for Verified Voting is a grassroots non-partisan organization fighting for clean and verified elections. We study and research the issue of voting to ensure the dignity and integrity of the intention of each voting citizen. The NC Voter Verified Coalition has consistently fought for increasing access, participation and ensuring the voter franchise. Contact Joyce McCloy, Director, N.C. Coalition for Verifiable Voting – phone 336-794-1240 and email joyce (at) ncvoter.net website www.ncvoter.net

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