Ohio county eyes switch to optical scan evoting

Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Board of Commissioners is considering scrapping a US$17 million investment in touch-screen electronic-voting hardware and switching to precinct count optical scan devices.

Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, runs Diebold Election Systems’ AccuVote TSX systems. Board members are concerned that the systems now in place can’t handle a growing number of voters. By contrast, optical scan systems could accommodate increased numbers of voters by allowing officials to add more places for them to fill out paper ballots in heavy-turnout elections.

Hugh Shannon, government service coordination manager for the county, confirmed that commission members are considering investing in optical scan machines to cope with increased voter demand. “We are gathering information towards that end, but no action has been taken,” said Shannon.

A decision will most likely be made by year’s end to meet local budget deadlines, he explained.

Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said that neither he nor any members of his committee have yet discussed the matter with the board of commissioners.

The use of touch screens systems in the county’s May 2 primary was the subject of a critical report by the Election Science Institute (ESI). Based in San Francisco, ESI is a nonprofit group that works to promote the development of auditable election systems. The report noted that the performance of the paper trail system used by the machines to record votes was flawed, as well.

That the commission is considering swapping out Diebold’s TSX gear in favor of optical scan technology is noteworthy, said Steven Hertzberg, project director at ESI. “Diebold’s rhetoric about the performance of its direct record electronic (DRE)-based election system does not withstand objective scrutiny, and the Cuyahoga Commissioners obviously now know this.” He also said he believes the county spent more money, effort and energy evaluating the system than perhaps any other jurisdiction in the nation.

Diebold, however, is claiming its systems work very well with large numbers of voters. Diebold spokesman David Bear noted that the vendor has sold DRE systems in huge jurisdictions, including the states of Utah and Georgia, and the machines are able to support high numbers of voters there. Moreover, the issues in Cuyahoga County involving DRE use have tended to result from training issues and familiarity with the devices, rather than the performance of the technology itself.

Diebold also sells optical scan devices, which have their own advantages, as well, said Bear. “Cuyahoga County will make the decision appropriate to itself and we’ll be there to work with it,” he said.

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have posted a draft set of recommendations (download PDF) related to the use of voting systems. The federal agency develops and promotes measurement, standards and technology and in their paper, NIST researchers offered several recommendations for the 2007 Voluntary Voting Systems Guidelines (VVSG).

Perhaps the most significant of the recommendations is that NIST believes there should be a requirement for software independence placed in the VVSG. Software independence means a system’s electronic counts can be independently audited, or that there is an auditable paper trail, such as exists in optical scan technology. NIST asserted that DREs are software dependent — that is, they don’t produce a voter-verified audit trail.

The verification of DRE accuracy is “so complex as to be infeasible” and current testing methods cannot guarantee DRE accuracy, NIST said in the report. It urged that no software-dependent approaches be allowed in the 2007 guidelines.

The NIST report is expected to be presented at the Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC) meeting next week in Gaithersburg, Md.. The TGDC helps set elections regulations.

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