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Better Voting Key*

May 29, 2001

A Definite Key to Better Voting:
Catching Errors at Their Source

WASHINGTON -- John Conyers is an experienced voter; at 72 years old, he has been a congressman half his life. Yet last Nov. 7, a new machine at his Detroit precinct choked on his ballot, and spit it back at him for a second try.

The Democrat made the mistake that thousands of fellow Americans would make that day, errors that widely came to be chalked up to voter inexperience, confusion, even stupidity. He had "overvoted," choosing one too many district judges. Yet unlike so many Floridians who did the same for president, nullifying their selections, Mr. Conyers got another chance, thanks to the "precinct-counter" machine that caught his error before he left the polls.

"That machine saved my vote," he says.

That illustrates a surprisingly simple yet potentially profound lesson for improving the nation's voting system -- a lesson that's beginning to take hold in the wake of last fall's contested election. What may matter more than the type of machines voters actually use is whether their precinct has some separate technology to read those ballots on site, so voters can correct their most common mistakes. No matter what technology is used to vote, problems are much worse when ballots are sent off to some central place for counting after it's too late to let voters find and fix their own errors. [Test on line prior to taking to polling place. Benefits to military and embassy]

Hope on the Way for Punch Cards

Even the punch cards made notorious in Florida can work with relatively few errors, it has been shown, if each polling place has a precinct-counter machine to review ballots on the spot. Then, voters who cast either an overvote or an undervote (that is, failing to vote in a race) can try again.

"The real culprits appear not to be punch cards, but central-counting systems," election expert Doug Lewtold is a Senate committee earlier this month. Mr. Lewis, who heads the Election Center, a nonprofit body that advises local election officials, said, "We now know that precinct-counting systems help to significantly decrease voter error."

As a result, vendors of voting devices have scrambled to meet the new demand for technology that counts ballots at the same place they are cast. "Precinct counters: That is the biggest change we'll see in the voting industry," says Dan McGinnis, a vice president in the Chicago office of Election Systems & Software Inc., which makes all types of voting machines.

Take his hometown. Chicago uses the now-notorious punch-card machines, and in last November's election, its 7% error rate was nearly twice the error average in Florida counties with punch cards. Since Illinois's presidential election wasn't as close as Florida's virtual tie, the Chicago errors went largely unnoticed.

But they weren't a total shock to local officials. Before last November, Chicago had considered more than a dozen vendors for new machines, with initial cost estimates as high as $78 million. But the city decided to stick with its punch cards, and instead paid $30 million to Mr. McGinnis's company, based in Omaha, Neb., for separate precinct-count machines at each of its 2,500 precincts.

Previously, a Chicago precinct's votes went to a central station for counting. Now, with a precinct counter, a voter puts a completed ballot in a sleeve for secrecy, and gives it to an election judge, who inserts the ballot into the counter. The machine accepts those without overvotes or undervotes, dropping them into a secure ballot box. But it rejects those with problems, and emits a paper describing the "error" for the judge. The voter then can either revote, or, if the voter meant to skip a race, tell the judge to process the ballot as is. [What a time waste!]

The system got a trial run earlier this year in two special elections for city aldermen, and officials declared success. In one ward, which had the city's second-highest error rate -- 12.4% -- in last fall's presidential race, the ballots without votes for an alderman amounted to just over 1% of the total. And city officials attributed even that percentage largely to absentee votes, which can't be screened before voters mail them.

Nonetheless, precinct counters have one potential drawback that couldn't be tested in those special elections with a single race on the ballots.

Lance Gough, executive director of Chicago's Board of Elections, acknowledges that in general elections such as last November's, with much bigger voter turnout and far more ballot choices, long lines are possible as voters get their ballots screened and some revote. In fact, that's just what happened last fall in one Florida polling place with a precinct counter, and a frazzled local election official reportedly disabled the system so ballots flew through unchecked.

Similar to ATMs

ES&S, the voting-machine vendor, tried to duplicate its Chicago sale in Houston. But after Florida's fiasco, the Harris County Elections board opted instead to replace its central-count punch-card machines entirely, with computerized electronic systems that are similar to banks' automatic-teller machines. These touchscreen or keyboard electronic systems have a ballot-check built in: The software typically is programmed so that overvotes aren't possible, and undervotes are clearly indicated to voters before they finalize their ballots. Voters who didn't intend to skip a race can go back and vote, following directions much as they would on their ATMs.


Second Time's a Charm?

A look at error rates for presidential ballots in Florida counties indicates the benefit when a precinct has a counting machine on site, so voters can correct mistakes there, rather than sending them straight to a central-counting location.

Optical-Scan Ballots
Without Precinct Counters

1. Gadsden County 12.40%

2. Hendry County 9.05%

3. Okeechobee County 8.00%

Optical-Scan Ballots
With Precinct Counters

4. Leon County 0.18%

5. Brevard County 0.27%

6. Volusia County 0.27%

Sources: Report of Florida Governor's Select Task Force on Election Procedures, Standards and Technology; Orlando Sentinel


Precinct counters also are available for a third voting technology, the optical-scan systems. In those, voters darken ovals or arrows to mark their choices, much like students taking standardized tests, and a machine scans the marks. Throughout the country, optical-scan systems with centrally counted ballots had much higher error rates than those with precinct counters, and higher error rates than even punch-card systems.

Florida's new election-reform law not only outlaws punch-card machines, but it also mandates that optical-scan systems have precinct counters. A state report on the November election showed that in counties with optical-scan systems, those with precinct counters had an average error rate below 1%. Meanwhile, the average error rate was nearly 6% in counties lacking on-site counters -- two percentage points higher than the error rate for the punch-card machines used in most of the remaining counties.

Los Angeles County, meanwhile, looks to be stuck with punch-card machines, and no ballot-checking, for some time to come. The county has decided to move to electronic touchscreens -- but slowly. Conny McCormack, the registrar-recorder and county clerk, estimates it will take $100 million altogether to make the conversion, and figures she will be lucky to get $3 million this year. So she's not planning to buy any precinct counters.

Meantime, she hopes the national attention to Florida's mess has educated voters to avoid mistakes on their own. "Now, everybody is so chad-conscious," she says. "We couldn't have bought that kind of public-awareness campaign."

Write to Jackie Calmes at jackie.calmes@wsj.com

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