Early Voting: Reliability and Reluctance

The 2009 U.S.
Presidential election is now underway, with early voting having started in many
states. And pretty much right off the bat, we’re seeing problems with
reliability and reluctance. The story in New Jersey
is a familiar one writ large, but the contrast with Texas
and Florida
shows that often the same concerns– reliability and trust — lead to similar
reluctance about both using e-voting technology, and about avoiding it. The
kicker is the reluctance to avoid it, in Florida
– read on.

Of the 3 states, New Jersey is in the middle of the risk spectrum,
with familiarly worrisome voting systems in which the balloting devices have
once again been shown to have serious security issues, (graphically illustrated
by a Princeton team retained by the state for analysis) accompanied by legal
wrangling between the vendor and the state. The common NJ mantra is to vote by
mail, even though the VBM ballots are tabulated by the same worrisome voting

In Texas, Webb County is at one end of the spectrum, with an
e-voting system that has balloting devices that produce no paper records, that
has no ability to re-count ballots, and that includes management tools that
allow county administration to “correct” vote totals. Webb County
has started early voting on paper ballots, out of concern for security issues, but
also reliability (if the machines flake out, there is no way to tell). Also in
the mix is some legal action by candidates (before election day! sue early, sue
often) citing concerns over trust in the election officials managing the
e-voting system. (See “Voting machines absent on first day of early voting” for several priceless quotes.)

Florida (I hate to keep picking on Florida, but there it is)
is actually at the other end of the spectrum, with many counties using hand-marked,
machine-counted ballots, and concerns focused more on reliability. In these
counties, there is some increased confidence because of the paper ballots being
able to be recounted (though as we saw in the Palm Beach primary, there is plenty of room
for the people and the computers to screw that up as well). Well, in at least
one county, the early voting started poorly with the optical scanners spitting
back all the ballots at the get-go. So in Florida, the concern is more about
reliability than security.

But here is kicker. Many people liked both the paper
ballots and the computerized ballot scanners, and were unwilling to mark the
ballots and deposit them in boxes from which the ballots would be later taken
and scanned (presumably by more reliable machines). Some of these people
decided to come back later when the scanners were fixed, rather than trust
election workers
to handle the ballots properly.

I think that that may be my key lesson from election 2008:
unreliable and untrustworthy  e-voting
technology, along with not-entirely-trusted and all-too-human error-prone
election officials, working together as “belt and suspenders” – and if the belt
is on the fritz, then like Annie Fingh of Duval County Florida, I’ll try again


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