Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Pennsylvania Primary Judgement

I worked at a polling station in Pennsylvania today. I was the Judge of Elections at a polling station in Forks Township, Northampton County. It was the first time I was an election worker. It was a long day, but I enjoyed it and was interested to observe the voting process in more detail. My co-workers--Arlene, Dale, Liz, and Ray--were all friendly and hard-working. It's nice to get to know you neighbors better.

The turnout out our polling station was low. We had 141 voters come to the polls and counted nine absentee ballots. There are 1,627 registered voters, so turnout was almost nine percent. A second polling station in the same building had an even lower turnout.

The voting went pretty smoothly, I think. We voted with electronic voting machines for the first time in Northampton County. We used two WINvote machines from Advanced Voting Solutions.
I think it went well, particularly considering that people had never used these machines before.

Most of the voters liked the new machines, and some people were very enthusiastic. They said they loved it or that it was easy or that it was much easier than the lever machines. A handful of people, no more than five, had a strong dislike of the machines. One of the people who disliked them said that they did not show who was an incumbent. I'm not sure that the old machines showed that for a primary or not, so I don't know if that's a valid criticism. Several people--maybe a dozen--were concerned about the security of the machines. Many of them asked why they couldn't have a paper receipt like an ATM machine.

Two voters needed their spouses to help them vote. There's an official form to fill out to request assistance and we turn those all in at the end of the day. One of the women was born in Italy and couldn't read English very well. She was one of the many interesting people I met.

We did have trouble with the machines themselves. One of them hung four times and another crashed while loading a ballot. We had to reboot the machines each time. The machines are operated with smart cards. There is one card for the location that is used to start and stop the machine. There are two ballot cards that are used to load and cancel ballots. One machine hung because its card reader stopped responding to the cards. Reboots took a couple of minutes and fixed the problem. The other machine crashed in the middle of loading a ballot. It showed a memory read error with a standards Windows error dialog box--only with an Ok button. I hit okay a couple of times and the machine hung again.

The problem with the machine crashes was their frequency. Five crashes for 141 votes cast is a pretty sorry rate. Imagine that this had been a contested general election. If we had 1000 voters and one crash every 28 votes, I would have done about 35 reboots.

It also took a long time to load a ballot. If a Democratic voter cast a ballot on the machine and the next voter was a Republican it took maybe a minute to switch to the new ballot. A sales rep who stopped by said that there were several hundred possible ballot configurations that it had to search through. I didn't really understand that explanation. There were only two ballot configurations. Why couldn't they both be cached?

It took about an hour and 35 minutes to close the polls. It took a long time to print out tallies and shutdown machines, and there were four paper result sheets to fill out. There were five different envelopes to return, plus a cellphone and all the materials and pamphlets.

Most of the voters were older, almost all more over 60, many were in their 70s and 80s.
Very few voters were under 35. I think about three were in their 20s.

The electronic voting machines are fairly small and the enclosure is small. We set them on two tables. They offered much less privacy than the old voting machines with the curtains, which was a little awkward at times. It did make it easy for people to ask questions about how to vote. They asked a lot of questions and we could explain it to them or show them using the printed out example ballots. A lot of people got stuck on the review page that showed the votes cast on previous screens.

A few people, mostly older people, spent a long time voting--more than five minutes. Our instructions said to stop people after three minutes unless there was no one waiting, but it didn't explain how to "stop them." We did not stop them, but we never had more than four people waiting. If we stopped them, would we invalidate their ballot? We couldn't force them to cast the ballot without pressing buttons for them, which we're not allowed to do.

I wonder how much testing do these voting machines really get? They are used twice a year. For our primary, no machine executed more than 75 transactions. For a busy general election, we'd probably have 300 transactions per machine. If a machine executes a few hundred transactions per year, how much opportunity do you have to exercise corner cases and have confidence that the bugs are worked out. I wonder if they gathered enough diagnostic data when the machine did get rebooted.

It would be helpful to have a better way for people to learn how to use the machines. For the old lever machines, they had a toy voting machine that you could try out while you were waiting. I remember playing with it when I was a kid. When I voted for the first time, I knew exactly what to expect. We didn't have a PC where voters could try it out and the paper printouts didn't capture the experience at all. I think a video showing all the options would make the most sense. You could put a TV and a video player in each polling station.

The process for election works produces a lot of redundant paper records, which seems like a good thing. You have three lists of the voters who voted--an official list of voters (plus carbon copy), log books with the voters signatures, and throw-away forms where the voters print their names. All three records are numbered, so it's easy to track down record keeping errors. There's some redundancy in the computer records, but only as multiple copies of the final tally. At the end of the day, we print out a summary of the votes and export the data onto two USB memory sticks. I believe there is also a copy on the local hard disk. I don't understand if there is any easily audited record of individual votes, because we only see the totals at the end of the day.


João Bordignon said...

Realy, 5 crashes for 141 votes is too much. Here in Brazil we have mandatory elections, so a single machine easily processes more than 500 votes. And last election 3 machines failed in my city, and we have more than 50,000 registered votes here. Of course our machines are very simple. No touch-screen, you only type the candidate number, then his name and picture apear on the (monocromatic) screen and you confirm your vote, no receipt. But they work, and totalization of the elections is prety fast (last presidential election took less than 24 hours).
So simplicity works here :)
(p.s. I know, my english is awfull)

Anonymous said...

I have served as a Chief judge in my precinct for several years. We have a different type of machine. Maybe one failed once in the years I've been doing it: primaries and general, presidential years and in-between.

Yes, there is *lots* of paperwork to fill out, but its not redundant (except copying totals to a master sheet).

The last two elections we have had electronic poll books: the list of voters on a machine. They are wonderful! (Once you get down how to use them.) Maryland offers quit good training for election judges. The biggest headache is provisional voting. There are nine different cases where someone can't use the machines in the regular way (moved, listed as already voted, absentee, etc. etc.), but they can have a paper ballot anyway. The Board of Elections sorts out whether or not to count the ballot from the documentation on the outside of the ballot envelope. If it is accepted, they remove the anonymous ballot and count them.

Our machines don't have a paper record, either. They are touch screen.