Fewer Touchscreens, But Just as Much Technology

Today some good news that is also annoying and misleading.

Election Data Services announced "Nation Sees Drop in Use of Electronic Voting Equipment for 2008 Election
– A First"
. The good news is that what they mean is that there has been a reduction in the number of voters in states that use DREs, (or electronic balloting machines, touchscreens, etc.) and an increase in the use of optical scanners.

That’s good because there’s a strong consensus that it’s better to have paper ballots than electronic ballots.

But it’s annoying because there is not in fact any decrease in the use of electronic voting equipment — both DREs and opscan devics are electronic equipment, both are a type of computer, both have technical problems, and both are vulnerable to electronic tabulation errors that we’ve seen (most recently in Butler County OH and Palm Beach County FL).

Further, it is misleading — and this really burns my butter — because it implies that opscan systems are better or more trustworthy than DREs. It raises the expectation that elections with opscan systems will be run better or have fewer problems. That’s not true (again, Palm Beach County FL). And by raising expectations that will not be met, this kind of reporting ends up creating more voter mistrust of technology.

However, there is a bit of further bad and then good news. I am sorry to say that opscan systems are no more trustworthy than DRE systems. Both are (today) closed proprietary devices that can malfunction mysteriously, and are part of larger computerized election systems that are just as closed and flakey regardless of the type of voting device used. However, though opscan devices are not trustworthy, opscan procedures may be more trustworthy than use of DREs. That is, you might have a more trustworthy election if you both use opscan systems instead of DREs and if the election officials follow best practices of mandatory hand audit of a significant percentage of votes cast.

But these practices have to be required, have to be done, and done right, and the results disclosed for transparency of the audit. Based on what we’ve seen so far, that is a very tall order. But it’s a start, and in the meantime there is plenty of work to do on build opscan systems that can earn trust as well.

— EJS 


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