The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

22 July 2005

These aren't the voting machines you're looking for

Seemingly everyone thinks highly of Oklahoma's optical-scan voting system: it's uniform statewide, it produces no hanging chads or other perplexing anomalies, and it produces results quickly.

So naturally, it's got to go.

The Feds are handing out money for "improvements" to voting systems, and God forbid we should ever have to turn down money from the Feds — never mind where it came from in the first place — so Oklahoma will be buying a bunch of touch-screen devices at $3500 to $5000 a shot.

There's one defensible aspect to this: the new machines will theoretically improve the voting experience for the disabled and the blind, who presumably won't have to request assistance from a poll worker. And the existing pool of optical-scan machines is getting old, and replacements for them run four grand or so.

Mike Clingman at the Election Board is making noises about slapping a touch-screen interface on the current optical-scan technology, a prospect which should scare anyone who's ever tried to install Windows XP Service Pack 2 or to uninstall any version of RealPlayer.

To borrow a phrase, I have a bad feeling about this.

Update, November 2008: The most recent thinking at the Election Board is here. Pertinent quote:

In 2006 Clingman was ardent supporter of a system which, at its heart, used paper ballots with optical scanners and maintained a paper trail. Two years later, nothing has changed. He told me that whatever system we use, it must meet the following requirements:
  1. It must be a system based on an optical scanner.
  2. It must take paper ballots, and maintain a paper trail.
  3. It must have a provision for the disabled built in that will allow them to vote without a paper ballot.
  4. The system for the disabled must create a paper ballot that can then be placed in the optical scanner (to keep the paper trail alive).
  5. It must be contained in one system so that we aren't left with one machine for people with paper ballots and another for the disabled.
Apparently no such system yet exists, but Clingman told me that he has two different companies working on creating such a system.

Note: Since traffic to this page has picked up, I'm continuing to update as needed.

Posted at 8:53 AM to Soonerland

Laugh it UP fuzzball!! (I've always wanted to say that.)

Posted by: Dwayne "the canoe guy" at 9:02 AM on 22 July 2005

This is a really bad idea. In terms of the machines, we have a great system...

Posted by: Steven Roemerman at 9:31 AM on 22 July 2005

It's OK Grandpa - it's just a computer!

Replacing paper with computers for no good reason is quickly becoming a major pet peeve.

Posted by: Dan at 10:42 AM on 22 July 2005

Amen, Chaz. I hate to fall back on such a cliché, but, "If it ain't broke - don't fix it" fits this situation perfectly.

Posted by: Mike Swi... at 11:49 AM on 22 July 2005

At least with the optical scanning machines, you have a paper (cardstock) ballot to hand-count, if necessary. With a touch screen system, you have, perhaps, a receipt for the voter, and electronic files for the counting (and for frauding).

My first experience a poll watcher was in rural Mississippi in '86. We voted ballots as big as bedsheets, it seems. The counting area was crowded by as many as 15 people, mostly older black citizens who had been denied the right to vote in their younger years. I remember one of them telling me that he hoped they'd never go with machine voting: it would be took easy to steal an election that way. Even though paper ballots can (and do) disappear in suspicious ways, they do leave a (pardon the pun) paper trail. The push for electronic balloting is all in the name of "efficiency" in tallying results.

The gripe I have with Oklahoma's current opitcally scanned ballots is that there is no allowance for write-in votes. But that's another issue (third-party ballot access is another).

Posted by: John Owen Butler at 12:16 PM on 22 July 2005

I have no reason to think touch-screen devices will make it any easier to implement write-in votes. And, well, we all know how horrible ballot access for third parties has been.

Posted by: CGHill at 1:01 PM on 22 July 2005

FWIW, on Georgia's touch-screen system, I was able to cast a number of -- well, more like "type-in" votes last year.

The optical-scan ballots I've voted here (before Bush v. Gore) and previously in Alaska had allowances for write-in voting as well. As did the butterfly punch-card ballots I used before that in California.

All it takes is a willingness by election authorities to make the effort to design the option. But as you say, Charles, willingness to provide options to voters doesn't seem to be a priority for Oklahoma election officials.

Posted by: McGehee at 10:07 AM on 23 July 2005