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LOCAL News :: Elections & Legislation

E-Voting Coming to a Polling Place Near You

The Chicago and Cook County Boards of Elections are on the verge of purchasing electronic voting machines from one of a handful of vendors they are considering.
The move would help the county comply with one of the requirements of HAVA, the Help America Vote Act of 2002. The law states that all voting systems purchased using HAVA funds must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. The goal of the Cook County Clerk, David Orr, is to equip every precinct “with at least one voting station that is accessible for individuals with disabilities, allowing them to vote with the same privacy and independence as other voters” before the March 21, 2006 primary election.

Vendor Demonstration
On March 15th, four vendors displayed their electronic or e-voting machines co-sponsored by the Cook County Clerk's office and the Chicago Board of Elections. They wanted feedback from the public to help them decide which equipment they should purchase. From an initial field of ten, the four finalists were: Diebold, ES&S, Sequoia, and Hart InterCivic.

Controversy over E-Voting Machines
In the last couple years there has been an explosion of articles, editorials, op-eds, books, and web sites warning about the dangers of e-voting machines. Some even claim that vote fraud in the 2004 election cost Kerry the election. (See the references below if you want to research this yourself). The problem is that the new paper-less e-voting machines used in the 2002 and 2004 elections cannot be audited at all. There is no way for the voter or anyone else to determine if the votes have been recorded and counted accurately.

A consensus has developed among the experts that the absolute minimum requirements for safe elections using e-voting machines are: 1) a Voter Verified Paper Record (VVPR), 2) open source software, and 3) mandatory recounts of 5% of the precincts, randomly selected.

H.R. 550, the "Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act of 2005" was introduced on February 2, 2005 by Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey. calls this bill "the gold standard" because it includes all three requirements.

In Illinois VVPR's are required statewide, thanks to a state law passed in 2004, and David Orr's office is pushing for both 2) and 3). Some say this is not enough, because you would still have to trust the election workers and administrators. They demand paper ballots, counted by hand, in public. This is not as unrealistic as it sounds, because Canada still counts paper ballots by hand quite efficiently. Also, a disabled voter could vote at an e-voting machine which could then print a paper ballot that would be hand-counted – so it would still comply with HAVA.

A Review of The Finalists
All of the machines at the demo provided a VVPR and met HAVA requirements for the disabled. None of the vendors said they were willing to make their software source code public – they say it is proprietary, a trade secret. Open source code would be required by SB1683 which was introduced in the State Senate by Don Harmon on 2/24/2005.

All of the vendors claimed their systems stored the ballots in an encrypted format and redundantly. All the systems had battery backups in case of a power failure. But, none of this matters if the paper ballot is the official record and is hand counted.

All of the machines presented the ballot on a flat-panel computer screen. Three were touch-screen machines, meaning you could just touch the screen to choose a candidate. The Hart machine required the voter to rotate a dial to highlight the candidate they wanted and then push a button to select it. Some of the machines allowed you to increase the size of the font and they all supported multiple languages (Chicago and Cook County require English, Spanish, and Chinese).

The VVPR in all the machines consisted of a paper tape behind a protective plastic shield. The voter can read it as it is printed, but they can never touch it – the paper is immediately rolled up onto another reel inside the voting machine. It's a reel to reel tape system. They varied from a small, narrow, hard-to-read tape (Diebold) to tapes that were about 4 inches wide and reasonably easy to read. On some systems you can print your ballot, then go back, make changes, and print it again, before casting your final vote.

The problem with this paper tape system is you do not know what happens to your ballot as it disappears back into the machine. Will it ever be counted? What if there is a paper jam and it gets destroyed? A paper ballot that you could hold in your hand, examine at your leisure, and deposit in a ballot box remains a superior system when faced with these unanswered questions.

Some of the machines were stand-alone; at the end of election night the ballots (or perhaps just the totals for each candidate) are transferred to another machine in the precinct (the “tabulator”) that transmits the data by radio (over the Verizon network) to the central office. Each of these machines has a removable ATM-style card or small memory device plugged into it. The election workers remove these one by one and plug them into the tabulator. After the votes are all in the tabulator they press the “send” button to transmit the votes downtown. The other machines were networked directly to the tabulator, so after closing the polls, the election judge just needs to press the “send” button. Two of the vendors (ES&S and Sequoia) said their machines would be able to interface with the existing tabulators used with the current punch card machines – a significant cost saving option. It's probably also a safer option. Here in Illinois exit polls have tended to agree with the final vote counts, which means the existing tabulators and central computer software are accurate and reliable.

Clem Balanoff, Director of Elections for Cook County says they will probably have to sign a contract with one of the four vendors by the end of the summer in order to roll out the new machines before the March 21, 2006 primary election.

Cook County residents have the opportunity now to influence the final choice of Cook County and Chicago. Illinois has little chance of becoming another Ohio because it is one of the bluest states and David Orr has a well deserved reputation as a progressive and for his integrity. He also supports SB1683 and wants the vendor's source to be made public, though this is not the same thing as open source. Election officials seem very interested in what the public has to say, yet it remains to be seen if the public can persuade them to choose a true open source solution such as the one offered by the Open Voting Consortium (see below).

On April 30th The Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice is sponsoring a forum on elections and voting machines and David Orr will be the featured speaker. (For details see




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