This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

June 2, 2005

Hedda L. Haning and Julie Archer

Optical-scan voting system is a better choice for Kanawha

We read with interest about the Kanawha County Commission’s decision to select touch-screen voting machines for all future elections. Fortunately, state law now requires a voter-verified auditable paper ballot as part of such a system, along with manual recounts of 5 percent of precincts selected randomly. Therefore, the reliability of the vote seems secure.

However, news reports about the machine decision bring other concerns to mind, principally ones of cost:

One article said touch-screen voting machines (commonly known as DREs) are cheaper and more convenient to use. That is a questionable premise, as it is contrary to all experience and expert opinion.

To begin with, the state is willing to use federal money allocated under the Help America Vote Act to pay for counties upgrading to handicap-accessible optical-scan voting. But Kanawha County will pay for the DRE system itself.

Secondly, has the county taken into consideration the extensive hours of paid employee time it takes to do test runs (logic and accuracy tests) and set up each DRE, at least four for most precincts, over 700 for the county? Or have commissioners considered the cost — almost $1,000 each for the county’s 183 precincts — of the device that makes an enabling ID card for each voter?

Handicap-accessible optical-scan ballot marking devices are fewer in number (one per precinct) and do not require the same vote-recording assessments or individualized ID cards, as they do not count votes. With optical scan, most users vote without computer assistance. DREs require costly maintenance contracts and every single one must be plugged in continuously forever, or very expensive battery replacement is required.

A big issue was made of the cost of ballots. The statement from the Kanawha County clerk suggested that there will be no ballot costs connected with DREs. That is simply not true. First of all, DREs are now required by state law to generate a voter-verified paper ballot. Suitable paper for that purpose will be a recurring although small cost.

More importantly, ballots are needed for absentee, and probably provisional, voters. There is also the question of whether ballots should be on hand in case of DRE failure. As a result of sad experience, some DRE jurisdictions have needed them. In any case, some paper (currently optical-scan) ballots must be designed and printed. The county cannot escape ballot-printing costs.

Approximately 20 percent of the cost of ballots is related to design and is up front, before a single ballot is printed. Furthermore, the more ballots printed, the less the cost per ballot (ranging in 2004 between 25 and 50 cents per ballot). So printing half the ballots comes to more than half the cost. It doesn’t seem that this reality has been factored into the cost analysis of the DREs.

Additionally, it seems to defy common sense and to invite complications to use two different systems (DREs and optical scan) when optical scan alone would serve all of the county’s needs for all elections.

None of the Kanawha commissioners would depend on the car salesman alone for unbiased information when buying a car. Voting machines are a much more complicated issue. Surely, they wouldn’t take all of their information about voting technologies from the vendors. We must ask whether the county has made use of the computer consultants available through our excellent state institutions. Also Verified Voting is a national group of computer academics, which has as its public interest mission helping citizens and governments navigate the dangerous waters of new computer technologies involved in voting. It is the voting equivalent of Consumer Reports. The group was very helpful in recent state deliberations.

Finally let us look at the information now available from Dade County, Fla., ground zero of vote-counting concerns. In separate articles, The Sun Sentinel and AP reported on May 25 that the Dade County’s DRE system was studied because of lost votes and other vote-counting “glitches.” But Dade’s major impetus to consider changing from DREs to an optical-scan system was financial. The news reports said:

“Elections supervisor Lester Sola said in a memo Friday that he reached his conclusion based on declining voter confidence... and election-day labor costs that have quadrupled with them” [DREs]. “Mayor Alvarez also fumed that the current [DRE] system has increased the cost of running an election to about $7 million per election.... Sola said an initial analysis showed that the county would save more than $13 million over five years with an optical-scan system through lower operating costs and the elimination of costly maintenance expenses.”

We feel the issues raised are worthy of careful consideration. It seems to us that in light of the above data, commissioners should reconsider their choice of technology for Kanawha County elections. We urge voters and taxpayers who feel similarly, or just want some answers, to get in touch with our county commissioners.

Dr. Haning is a leader of West Virginia Citizens for HAVA. Archer is a leader of the West Virginia Citizen Action Group.

Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246