Alabama: Vendor Supplies Pencils for Marking Ballots

Continuing on with our recap of election technology faults and oddities in the recent election, not the most alarming but perhaps the most perplexing is a story from Gadsden, AL. From the the news article, it seems that Etowah County’s election officials rely on their voting system vendor, Election Systems and Services (ES&S) to provide election supplies for using ES&S’s opscan ballot counter. So far so good, but the supplies include what ES&S coyly refers to a “marking devices”, a.k.a. pens for voters to use to fill in bubbles on the paper ballot. Why the county needs to buy pens from ES&S rather than a local Office Depot or similar, I couldn’t say, but here is the weird bit …

ES&S couldn’t manage to find enough pens that both adequately marked their ballots, and met the $9 a dozen price point, which an ES&S representative implied was a money-loser for them in their service contract with Etowah County. And here is the really weird bit: instead of buying some $12 a dozen pens, or letting the election officials know about the pen shortage (!), ES&S supplied pencils instead of pens. That’s right, pencils, with an implied recommendation that it is OK for voters to mark a ballot with an erasable mark; and implied endorsement that the opscan counting devices read pencil marks as well marks from ink-based “marking devices.”

It will come as no surprise to readers here that the counting machines got flakey when presented with pencil marked ballots, and caused some trouble at the polling places — or at least the need to run over to a local store and buy some more pens. It seems that no great harm was done, at least based on what I was able to glean from the news article. People marked ballots with pencil, got them kicked back from the scanners, and had to wait for one of those scarce pens to become available to be able to mark a fresh ballot in pen. One hopes that poll workers correctly stored the pencil ballots as spoiled, and properly failed to examine the ballots to determine how a voter voted. These are normal operational risks, of course, but here again we see where flakey machines and/or flakey vendors create the polling place conditions where:

  • Accurate, private, timely voting is more at risk than need be.
  • Election officials and volunteers have to operate with more power and discretion, and less transparency, than anyone would prefer under normal circumstances.

But honestly, the story is short, and has several bits that are so wacky, I really urge you to read it yourself. Here are some of the bits that leapt out at me when I read it. These are quotes, but italics are mine, indicating where my jaw dropped. 🙂

  • Election Systems and Software … included pencils in supply packets because of a shortage of pens.
  • County election officials discovered that when they checked supplies prior to Election Day.
  • ES and S apologized for the problems that arose from the change to pencils, which he said “created more issues than we anticipated.”
  • … continual changes have made it difficult to evaluate and settle on a “reliable, consistently available pen.”
  • … cost of pens that meet technical requirements had increased to more than $9 a dozen, and with the quantities needed for the election, that amounted to a “significant cost.”
  • [ES&S] won’t provide pencils for future elections and “will be looking for a suitable pen that meets the various needs of all.”

Really weird. I guess that what Etowah County deserves, but does not have today, is a voting system with optical scanners that are “functionally compatible” with a “marking device” that local election officials can easily buy by the hundred dozen at a local store. I know that I often explain here why some aspect of election technology is not rocket science, but I an assure you, no combustion engineering or orbital mechanics are required to find a black felt tip pen to mark a bubble that a scanner can scan and counting software can find. It’s too bad that’s not the case in Gadsden.