Tuesday, March 24, 2009

ES&S Withdraws Op-Scans from Erie County Test Run

Election officials in Erie County (Buffalo, NY area) agree that lever voting machines are more accurate and reliable than the electronic voting technologies. However, in anticipation of the state-mandated change to electronic voting machines, the county Board of Elections arranged with Election Systems and Software (ES&S) to test their new DS200 optical scan voting machines through their use in eight village elections in March 2009.

These optical scanners are currently undergoing certification testing by the State Board of Elections, but last year optical scan machines made by ES&S failed pre-election tests in one Michigan county and produced conflicting vote totals in other areas. Election officials reported that the same ballots run through the same machines yielded different results each time.

The Erie County Board of Elections worked for two months with ES&S and election officials in the eight villages on arrangements to use the machines in the March elections. They were prepared to conduct 100% hand counts if necessary to correct scanner errors. But, a week before the election, ES&S abruptly withdrew their offer to make the op-scan machines available. Instead the elections were conducted on the traditional lever machines.

In a press release dated March 11th, Erie County Election Commissioner Ralph Mohr concluded that, "Unfortunately, the fact that the manufacturer pulled out of the pilot project at the last minute indicates to me a lack of confidence in its own system...The lever style machines will afford voters and candidates the confidence in the integrity and accuracy of the voting process during this election."

Mohr told the Election Transparency Coalition that his county had also experienced problems with the vendor's configuration of the AutoMark accessible ballot marking devices (BMDs) in last year's primaries. He said the order in which the contests were presented on the screen, and via the audio headsets used by voters with visual disabilities, differed from that required by the Election Law and correctly printed on the paper ballots. The county ended up correcting these problems on their own for the general election.

The same voting systems have been selected by New York City, Rockland, Albany and Schenectady counties. The AutoMark has the advantage of being a non-tabulating BMD, which at least would not put vote tallies at risk. It's less than half the price of the riskier tabulating BMD that also counts the votes. But the vendor's refusal to run a pilot election with their ballot counting scanners casts doubt on the State Legislature's decision to replace the lever voting machines with computers in the first place.

ES&S is one of two vendors who have submitted Optical Scan machines for state certification review. The other vendor is Sequoia Voting Systems whose ImageCast BMD was deployed by many New York counties in the November 2008 elections. However, as Election Transparency Coalition and the E-Voter Education Project revealed last August, the optical scan portion of the ImageCast contains at least one serious and obvious flaw -- a hole which enables stuffing of the locked ballot box. (See this link for video and a legal analysis.)

- Joanne Lukacher