E-voting machine freezes, misreads votes, U.S. agency says

DS200 optical scanner from ES&S doesn't meet federal standards, but remains certified, Election Assistance Commission says

An electronic ballot scanning device slated for use in the upcoming presidential elections, misreads ballots, fails to log critical events and is prone to freezes and sudden lockups, the U.S. Elections Assistance Commission has found.

The little noticed EAC report on the DS200 Precinct Count Optical Scanner in the Unity voting system built by Election Systems & Software (ES&S) was released late last month.

The 141-page Formal Investigative Report ( download pdf ) highlights multiple "substantial anomalies" in the DS200: intermittent screen freezes; system lockups and shutdowns; and failure to log all normal and abnormal system event.

For example, the DS200 in some cases failed to log events such as a vote being cast, when its touch-screen is calibrated or when the system is powered on or off, the EAC said.

In addition, the EAC report said the system failed to read votes correctly when a 17-inch ballot was inserted at an angle. The voter's intended mark was either registered as a different selection or the vote was not registered at all, the EAC noted.

The tests also showed one DS200 system accepting a filled-in ballot without incrementing the public counter or without counting any of the marks. In that instance, the EAC found two ballots in the DS200 ballot bin, but only one was counted.

Though the EAC concluded that the problems found prevent the DS200 from meeting federal e-voting system standards, it stopped short of decertifying the system altogether.

The Elections Assistance Commission is responsible for for inspecting and certifying all electronic voting equipment

Had the EAC decertified the ES&S equipment, jurisdictions that had planned on using it in upcoming elections would have to quickly find alternative certified technology.

Instead, the EAC issued a Notice of Non-Compliance for the Unity system which allows ES&S to remediate the problems. The commission will also conduct a site visit to audit the Omaha-based company's development, testing and quality assurance practices.

The DS200 system is a paper-based vote tabulation system that contains an internal printer. Voters complete paper ballots and insert them into the DS200 scanner, which records and tallies the results, and prints them out after the polls are closed.

The ES&S system is no stranger to controversy.

In January 2010, the Florida Fair Elections Coalition (FFEC) released a report on an earlier DS200 implementation. The report called for Florida election officials to decertify the system due to what it contended were very high over-vote rates.

Estimates vary in terms of how widely the DS200 system is currently deployed.

According to an EAC map , the DS200 is used in a handful of jurisdictions in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. ES&S says that only one jurisdiction in Ohio and a "few" in Wisconsin use the version referenced in the EAC report.

Election watchdog group Verified Voting estimates that 29 jurisdictions in Florida, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin currently use the device. Those jurisdictions account for 12 million registered voters or more, according to Verified Voting.

The EAC investigation was prompted by an April 2010 report in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, which cited a freeze/shutdown issue with the DS200 during pre-election testing in Ohio's Cuyahoga County.

In a statement, ES&S said it has worked in good faith with the EAC to address all reported issues in its technology.

"All reported issues have been addressed in a new version of software, Unity which, upon certification, will be made available to every jurisdiction that currently uses Unity," the company said.

The statement contended that the issues cited in the EAC report do not compromise election results. The company said it welcomes an EAC audit of its facilities. In fact, the company says it had extended an invitation to the commission to do so prior to the release of the report.

"Our door is always open to not only the EAC, but to our customer base as well, to visit us and witness first hand our stringent development and testing practices," the company noted in its statement.

Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, said that the concerns that prompted the 10-month EAC investigation are serious.

"Any time such concerns are raised, one would hope that the jurisdictions using those systems take additional measures to ensure correct outcomes in the interim while the issues are being examined," Smith said.

What is significant, she said, is the fact that the DS200 scanner is being used in conjunction with a voter-marked paper ballot.

Thus election officials have a hard copy ballot showing the voter's original intent, and therefore have the capability to do recounts and audits. "Any jurisdiction using the DS200 [or similar technology] should be doing a robust post-election audit routinely after every election," Smith said.

For the near-term, the system should not be used in any jurisdiction that doesn't do robust audits or inexpensive and easy to obtain recounts, Smith suggested.

"Even where non-discretionary, mandatory recounts are done when margins are within a certain percentage, I'd want to be able to improve on those mandatory recounts because of the doubt that such a system can cast on the outcome," she said.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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