Super Tuesday: An e-voting report from the trenches

A closer look at three states' e-voting readiness

Super Tuesday is here, and 17 states will hold presidential primaries, six will conduct caucuses and one will hold a state convention as the race for the White House continues.

Almost a month after two candidates called for recounts in New Hampshire's primaries, observers will be watching to see how well the e-voting systems work in today's contests.

In interviews with election leaders in New York, California and Alabama, three of the states holding primaries today, officials said they expect to be ready as voters come to the polls.

New York

Lee Daghlian, a spokesman for the New York State Board of Elections in Albany, said his state is still in the midst of voting system changes. He said that New York is looking to move from the old lever-style voting machines to a combination of optical-scan and direct recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen e-voting machines by next year.

New York is behind schedule compared to other states that have already moved to e-voting systems, because of protracted legal battles with federal election authorities over requirements for new e-voting systems, Daghlian said.

A key reason for the replacement of the old lever-style machines in New York, like in the rest of the nation, is that they are not handicapped-accessible under the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Under the act, voting systems have to be accessible to people with disabilities to allow them to vote without assistance.

Starting this September, every polling place in New York state will have a special ballot-marking device on hand that will enable handicapped voters to cast their ballots on their own, Daghlian said. Currently, most handicapped voters in the state cast their votes using absentee ballots or they have someone assist them in the polling places, he said.

The ballot-marking devices, which aren't ready for today's primary elections, are being tested, while e-voting systems for all other voters will undergo rigorous testing in independent labs by October to determine which systems the state and counties will purchase, Daghlian said. The old lever machines "work fine, they're just not accessible," he said.

Across the state, about 20,000 old lever machines will be replaced, including some that are spares kept on hand when needed.

New York fell behind other states in meeting the HAVA requirements because the state legislature wanted stricter laws than the federal rules, he said. "The state legislature had to pass their own laws to implement HAVA," including stricter rules such as requirements for a paper trail that would document a voter's selections. Also required under state law is the use of a full-screen ballot that contains all of the available choices for voters, rather than requiring voters to move to another screen, he said.

"It required new machine prototypes," he said.

The federal rules required HAVA compliance by January 2006, but the state missed the deadline and was later sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

California

In California, Nicole Winger, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Debra Bowen, said the state's 58 counties are also ready for today's primaries. Most of the state's voters -- about 75% -- already use mail-in paper ballots or optical-scanning voting systems with paper ballots.

Because some of the races may be close, changes established last year could come into play involving post-election random audits of the e-voting machines, Winger said.

California has had a 40-year-old requirement that 1% of the voting machines would be randomly audited after an election to ensure that the vote counts were accurate, Winger said. That requirement is now larger, requiring a larger number of machines to be randomly audited as the vote gap between a contested race shrinks. The smaller the vote gap, the higher the number of machines that must be randomly audited, based on a statistical formula.

Last summer, Bowen set up a Post-Election Audit Standards Working Group to review the audit process and to make recommendations to ensure more accurate elections. The working group reviewed how such audits are conducted around the nation and came up with proposals for change in California.

The higher auditing standards came about "based on the recommendations of this working group and Secretary Bowen's recognition that in very close races, she wants to be absolutely sure there is a statistically significant double-check," Winger said. "We know that no machine is perfect. She wants to be sure they are correct."

Bowen's top-to-bottom review of the state's e-voting systems resulted in severe restrictions on using DRE touch-screen voting machines because of concerns about their security, accuracy and reliability. Following the review, a variety of machines were decertified for use in the state. Some were later recertified, with lists of conditions making them eligible for use in upcoming elections.

Under the new rules, which go into effect for today's presidential primary, only one touch-screen machine will be used in each polling place. That machine will be available only to handicapped voters who may use it because of its special features, including audible ballots for visually impaired voters, Winger said.

Alabama

In Alabama, Ed Packard, supervisor for voter registration in the secretary of state's office in Montgomery, said the state's 67 counties will all use optical-scan e-voting machines. There are about 2.5 million active registered voters in the state.

There hasn't been as much controversy over e-voting in Alabama compared to other states, partly because the state has never been a big user of DRE machines, Packard said. "Our equipment has tended to be more stable, I think," he added.

"Probably what helped Alabama was that Alabama didn't get into electronic voting machines until the 1980s," he said. The first machines used in three counties were DRE touch-screen machines, but then optical-scan machines came out and were more aggressively marketed and then bought by most counties, Packard said.

When the HAVA rules came into effect, the three counties that still used DREs moved to optical-scan machines to ensure an accurate paper trail, he said.

Alabama does not require random post-election audits of the machines, but the state requires counties to perform logic and accuracy tests before each election, he said. The machines also have to pass reviews by a state e-voting committee, as well as testing by independent authorities under federal standards.

Alabama also provides ballot-marking devices in each voting district for handicapped voters. "Everything's pretty much in place" for Super Tuesday, Packard said. "We're just waiting for show time."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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