Voting: Across the country, local officials are experimenting with computer
technology in hopes of improving the election process
(from Maine Townsman, January 1996)
By Michael L. Starn, Editor
Is it conceivable, in the near future, on the first Tuesday of November . . . that you will log onto your personal computer in your home and from there actually cast your vote for President, governor or city councilor . . . that you will use a PIN (personal identification number) and your social security number to identify yourself as a registered voter . . . that the state and local ballots appropriate for you will appear on the computer screen once you have been determined eligible to vote . . . that nationwide results of presidential elections will be available within 15 minutes of the last polls closing?
It'll never happen, you say. Well, in some parts of the country, we're not too far from playing out this scenario, right now.
Across the country, computer technology is making headway into the most sacred of democratic processes-elections. A number of factors are behind the movement towards computers and computer technology in elections, including faster results, greater accuracy, reduced voting time and easier access to voting places, and perhaps most importantly, the desire to get more people exercising their right to vote. Skeptics of the technology point to the potential for error (without a paper trail), voice concerns about anonymity with computerized voting, and say that there is a loss of civic pride from this de-personalization of election day.
TOUCH SCREEN VOTING
In Burton, Michigan, a community of about 28,000 people and17,000 voters, touch screen voting was used in the last two elections.
With touch screen voting, a person steps into the voting booth to face a computer screen. There are no paper ballots; there are no pencils; there are no instructions on how to properly mark the paper ballot. The (electronic) ballot shows up on the computer screen. Voters use their fingers to touch, instead of mark, their choices. When a choice is made, the screen lights up and the voter can then go on to the next question or choice. When all selections have been made, the voter closes the ballot by touching the screen where it reads, "End All Voting".
Touch screen voting is currently a pilot project in Michigan. One precinct in Burton and two other communities in Michigan are experimenting with it.
Burton City Clerk William Walworth, who spearheaded the move toward touch screen voting, says that of ficials in the county where Burton is located are presently considering a bond issue to implement touch screen voting countywide. If the bond issue passes, officials estimate savings of $300,000 in just two years.
The election process in Burton is more automated than just touch screen voting. In 1989, Walworth introduced portable computers at polling places to verify and register voters. Voter registration information from the city clerk's office computer is accessed by modem with the portable computers, replacing the computer printout voter checklist. After the election, the information gathered at the polling places-who voted, new registrations, address changes-is downloaded onto the office computer. What used to take a week or two after the election, says Walworth, can now be accomplished on election day with the portable computers.
TOUCH BUTTON VOTING
The State of Kansas has had touch button voting since 1988, according to Johnson County Elections Commissioner Connie Schmidt. Elections in Kansas are conducted on a countywide basis. Johnson County, which includes metropolitan Kansas City, has 860 electronic (touch button) voting machines. Each machine is programmed for a specific precinct and inside each voting booth there is a computer. There are no paper ballots.
Votes are electronically sent to tape cartridges inside the computer. After the polls are closed, the cartridges are taken from the computers and sent to the county's election headquarters, where votes are officially tallied. This use of a storage medium (tape or cartridge) is what distinguishes touch button from touch screen voting.
Touch button voting is perhaps just the computerized version of the old mechanical lever voting machines. Instead of flipping a lever to cast a ballot, the voter touches a button that lights up alongside the voter's choice. When all choices have been made, the voter touches a final button that casts the entire ballot.
The mechanical lever voting machines worked similarly to the old adding machines. Votes were cast by flipping the lever and when the final lever was pushed the voting choices were simply added to the existing total from previous voters. Touch but-ton voting and the tape cartridges that store the votes allow for greater versatility that the mechanical lever machines. Using computer technol-ogy, the touch button machines actually store each ballot, allowing for re-counts of the voting results. The capacity of recounts was not possible with the old lever voting machines, a factor leading to their disuse. Com-puterized voting machines also allow for more space to have additional candidates and lengthy explanations for bond and referenda questions.
Advance Voting goes into effect this year in Kansas. Advance Voting gives the voter three options: (1) to vote by mail at any time during the 20 days proceeding election day (no ex-cuse or reason is needed for voting this way); (2) to vote at the election office at any time during the 20 days proceeding election day; or (3) to vote on election day. All ballots are still counted on election day.
Advance voting was pioneered in Texas where it has been used for about a decade. Absentee voting for those who are unable to vote on elec-tion day is a form of advance voting, but generally reasons must be given before you can request an absentee ballot. In any even, absentee voting is meant to be the exception rather than the rule and is seldom encouraged. Advance Voting gives the voter an equal choice.
An interesting irony to the Advance Voting in Kansas is that it takes a step backwards technologically speaking. Pre-election voting must be done on printed ballots while election day voting will be done on com-puters with touch buttons. The printed ballots will be scanned and then be merged with the tape cartridges that record the votes cast on election day. According to Election Commissioner Schmidt, the county has a computer software package that will enable election officials to merge the dissimilar voting processes.
In Oregon, the primary election for the seat of U.S. Senator Robert Packwood was held last month using mail ballots. Ballots were mailed to all registered voters (of the two parties) three weeks prior to the closing date of the primary election, December 5th. There was no poll voting; the returned mail ballots determined the outcome of this primary election. A general (special) election will be held on January 30 to select the successor to Senator Packwood.
According to Lewiston City Clerk Gerald Berube mail ballots have been used in a number of elections across the country, but to his knowledge, have been confined to referendum-type voting. Some potential abuses in the use of mail ballots have kept many jurisdictions from experimenting with them. This method of voting re-quires careful attention to security precautions to ensure that fraud does not occur and that voter anonymity is protected.
HOW MAINE VOTES
The election process in Maine is much more decentralized than in other parts of the country. As indicated by the examples from Kansas and Michigan, in many states county government plays a central role in elections.
Maine's elections take place at the local government level. There are 523 election districts in Maine, which includes the 489 cities, towns and plantations, the three Indian Nations and the remainder being unorganized territories.
In large part due to the number and size of the units of government involved in the election process, voting technologies used in other states, such as those discussed above, may not be suitable for Maine. Other than optical scan systems, electronic voting has not caught on in Maine.
OPTICAL SCAN SYSTEMS
Optical scanning devices, which use a technology similar to what you find at the checkout counter in many grocery stores, are the most prevalent type of electronic voting machine cur-rently in use here in Maine. According to Lewiston's Berube, this tech-nology is also the most widely used nationwide.
City and town clerks interviewed for this article put the number of votes being cast via optical scan read-ers at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent. It is important to note, how-ever, that most Maine communities do not have scanners, but the me-dium to large communities do, and that's where most of the voting occurs.
The most widely used optical scan systems in Maine are the OPTECH III-P and OPTECH Eagle manufactured and sold by Business Records Corpo-ration, the nation's largest elections service company. Another company that sells and services the OPTECH III-P is LHS Associates, located in Metheun, Massachusetts; LHS does not, however, sell the OPTECH Eagle, the newer version of the OPTECH system.
BRC Representative Earl Mann says that a new OPTECH III-P sells for $2445 and the Eagle is priced at about $6,000. With some communities mov-ing up to Eagles, used OPTECH III-P's are available for much less than the new ones (see Bethel below). Maintenance costs run about $200 a year and programming (memory packs for each ballot) costs $400 and up.
Ballots for the optical scanners are different than hand tabulated bal-lots, or what is commonly referred to as paper ballots. Machine ballots must be printed on a certain weight (thick-ness) of paper and be precisely cut. "When we (BRC) do the printing of ballots for a community, we reject about 30% of those ballots," says Earl Mann. "Printing and cutting are very important."
Machine ballots are also more ex-pensive. A few Maine communities have gone to speciality printers out-of-state to get more favorable pricing. For state elections, the Secretary of State will supply without charge to the community either machine or paper ballots.
Lewiston started using optical scan readers in 1987. City Clerk Berube says that going from paper ballots to scanners was a huge jump.
"The biggest difference is accuracy," says Berube, adding that ballot clerks who work a full day covering the election and then are expected to count ballots are prone to making errors.
Optical scanners, however, don't get tired or bleary eyed. And, they are fast.
Berube says that he has preliminary results within minutes of the polls closing and then final results 15 to 30 minutes after that. "By 10:15 I'm home watching television," he says.
All the clerks interviewed for this article touted the accuracy and speed of the optical scan voting machines. But, one-Bethel's Merton Brown- said there was one thing this new technology couldn't provide. "(They) take away the feeling of being part of the election process. . . election workers are civicly proud when they do vote counting . . . it's been kind of a social thing (election day) . . . I miss that," says Brown.
Brown, who is proud of his penny-pinching ways when it comes to spending town money, says he was able to get a very good deal on his OPTECH III-P by purchasing a used one. He discovered a company in the Midwest selling reconditioned OPTECH III-P's. The company had acquired its machines from communities that had upgraded to the Eagle model. Bethel got its machine for $600 and Brown says the town might not have moved into the optical scan system otherwise.
Bethel is also one of those communities that has found a cheaper supplier for its machine ballots.
FUTURE OF MAINE ELECTIONS
Will Maine communities ever go to touch button or touch screen voting? Will Advance Voting with no pre-conditions replace our absentee balloting process? Will voting from one's home computer, by mail or at shopping malls ever become a reality in Maine?
Lewiston's Gerry Berube acknowledges that voting by telephone or through the Internet and even by mail (i.e., outside the polling places) may happen someday, but he doesn't think it's in the foreseeable future. "The general public's distrust of government, especially in the election process, will prevent it," says Berube.
What he does think is a little closer is the computer terminal in the voting booth. Using a mouse to make your choices, and getting a printed receipt of your vote, if you want one, is where Berube feels the election process in Maine will evolve. But for now, he's happy and quite sat-isfied with the optical scan technology and with the new OPTECH Eagles that the city recently purchased.
The outside of Maine perspective, voiced by Kansas's Connie Schmidt and Michigan's William Walworth, pushes the technology button a little quicker.
"I think people will be able to vote from home in the not too distant future," says Schmidt. She believes we will be voting over phone lines with personal identification numbers, similar to how ATM machines (banking) work.
"When the next (computer) generation comes up, they will push us in that direction," she says.
Michigan's Walworth is a great believer in election experimentation. "If someone has an idea, let's try it," he says. His vision of home-based voting in the future is one where thumb prints would be used to gain access to voting. "PlNs can be sold," he cautions.
Walworth recently tried to get the Michigan Secretary of State's permission to take voting to the people by allowing advance voting (a week before election) at the local shopping mall. He was denied, but he hasn't given up on the idea yet.