An E-Voting Evolution

More and more jurisdictions are considering electronic voting solutions. Heres how one county made the successful transition.

by / May 6, 2001 0
While Floridians scrutinized chads last fall, election officials in Riverside County, Calif., celebrated the success of their first full-scale experience with electronic voting. Since then, colleagues across the United States have kept the countys employees busy with questions about their new touch-screen machines.

"Weve been overwhelmed with calls from other jurisdictions," said Mischelle Townsend, Riverside Countys registrar of voters. "Ive sent packets all over the country to people who are looking to replace their punch-card systems."

Riverside is not the first U.S. county to turn to electronic voting. According to a recent report by the California Institute of Technology/Massachusetts Institute of Technology Voting Project, 9 percent of U.S. counties, covering nearly 11 percent of the population, used direct recording electronic (DRE) systems to vote in 2000. But Riverside is one of the first counties to implement a DRE with a touch-screen interface in all of its precincts.

Officials in Riverside County are convinced their new system is counting every vote and doing it with enviable speed. In a special election for a state Assembly seat in February, Riverside tallied the results for all of its 111 precincts in one hour and 17 minutes.

Improving the Process

When Riverside County officials first started thinking about electronic voting, the big incentive was saving money.

The county spent more than $1 million printing ballots for Californias gubernatorial primary in 1998. It printed more ballots than usual to be ready for a larger than usual number of voters, because the state had just opened primary elections to voters who were unaffiliated with a political party.

Unfortunately, many people chose to stay home. "When it was over, I had 14 pallets of costly ballots I had to destroy," Townsend said.

Later, a city council race that was decided by a single vote spurred further interest in replacing Riversides 20-year-old balloting system with something more likely to capture the choice of every last voter.

With the old mark-sense system, a voter selected candidates by marking boxes with a special pen. A high-speed optical scanning system then read and tallied the votes.

Unfortunately, voters sometimes used their own pens instead of the ones provided. The scanning system couldnt read those marks and their votes were discarded, Townsend said. Also, the system used multiple ballot cards printed on both sides. When the ballot was long -- as it often is in California -- some voters inadvertently skipped contests.

With all this in mind, the county formed a task force to explore alternatives. In the fall of 1999, the group asked the County Board of Supervisors for permission to release a request for proposals for a touch-screen voting system. "Touch screen appeared to be the system that was certified by both federal and state governments in California that could deliver the criteria we were looking at -- improved accuracy, security and ease of use by the voters and poll workers," Townsend said.

The RFP drew three proposals from vendors whose touch-screen systems were certified at the time for use in California. The task force interviewed the candidates, checked references and performed an in-depth analysis of each companys financial condition.

With its homework done, Riverside County chose the AVC Edge touch-screen DRE system from Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment of Jamestown, N.Y. Riverside piloted the system in four municipal elections in 1999 and conducted voter surveys, which indicated that 99 percent of voters approved of the new voting machines, Townsend said.

In March 2000, Riverside County signed a $14 million contract with Sequoia Pacific for 4,250 units and started getting ready for the presidential election.

Pre-Game Warm-Up

To prepare citizens for electronic voting, Riverside County began an education campaign that included public presentations, a video on local cable stations and an online tutorial . It also made the machines available at several shopping malls for early voting -- a common practice in many states in the western United States.

Initially, there was concern that some voters, particularly the elderly, might not take to the new technology, said Roy Wilson, a member of the Riverside County Board of Supervisors. But the touch-screen interface has proven user friendly.

"I took my 90-year-old father down to see if it frightened him," Wilson recounts. "He said it was the easiest time he ever had voting."

Each machine records votes internally as well as on a PCMCIA cartridge that is carried to the tabulating machine. The software stores votes randomly, so its impossible to identify individuals by the order in which they cast their ballots.

If a recount is required, the county can print a summary of votes from each machines memory or print images of all ballots cast and count them by hand. "Theres a common misconception that touch-screen voting leaves no paper trail, but thats not true," Townsend said.

Printing ballot images is the "most extreme way to audit" votes on electronic machines, said Mike Frontera, vice president of operations at Sequoia Pacific. The simpler and more common method is to add the incremental totals kept in all the ballot machines and see if they equal the results from the tabulating machine.

Another advantage of the touch-screen system, Townsend said, is that because of its form factor, its accessible to voters in wheelchairs and elderly citizens who want to sit while they vote. Also, it can be programmed to present ballots in multiple languages, and it supports audio voting for the visually impaired, she said.

Weighing the Pros and Cons

Electronic voting systems are not without their critics. A preliminary report from the Caltech/MIT project indicates that voters using DREs or punch card systems are slightly more likely to "undervote" -- choose no candidate at all in some contests -- than voters using hand marked ballots or lever-based systems.

Critics also point to the high cost of DRE systems. Townsend conceded that the touch-screen units came with a hefty price tag. Riverside County paid $3,100 per unit, lower than the usual price of $3,500 to $5,000 per machine, because it served as a beta site, she said. But with 635,000 registered voters, she pointed out, the total $14 million price tag comes to only $22 per voter.

Moreover, the county says it will save more than $600,000 per year on paper and printing costs.

"No one thinks twice if they spend $22 in a nice restaurant for a dinner entr
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer