The 2009 U.S. Presidential election is now underway, with early voting having started in many states. And pretty much right off the bat, we’re seeing problems with reliability and reluctance. The story in New Jersey is a familiar one writ large, but the contrast with Texas and Florida shows that often the same concerns-- reliability and trust -- lead to similar reluctance about both using e-voting technology, and about avoiding it. The kicker is the reluctance to avoid it, in Florida – read on.

Of the 3 states, New Jersey is in the middle of the risk spectrum, with familiarly worrisome voting systems in which the balloting devices have once again been shown to have serious security issues, (graphically illustrated by a Princeton team retained by the state for analysis) accompanied by legal wrangling between the vendor and the state. The common NJ mantra is to vote by mail, even though the VBM ballots are tabulated by the same worrisome voting systems.

In Texas, Webb County is at one end of the spectrum, with an e-voting system that has balloting devices that produce no paper records, that has no ability to re-count ballots, and that includes management tools that allow county administration to “correct” vote totals. Webb County has started early voting on paper ballots, out of concern for security issues, but also reliability (if the machines flake out, there is no way to tell). Also in the mix is some legal action by candidates (before election day! sue early, sue often) citing concerns over trust in the election officials managing the e-voting system. (See “Voting machines absent on first day of early voting” for several priceless quotes.)

Florida (I hate to keep picking on Florida, but there it is) is actually at the other end of the spectrum, with many counties using hand-marked, machine-counted ballots, and concerns focused more on reliability. In these counties, there is some increased confidence because of the paper ballots being able to be recounted (though as we saw in the Palm Beach primary, there is plenty of room for the people and the computers to screw that up as well). Well, in at least one county, the early voting started poorly with the optical scanners spitting back all the ballots at the get-go. So in Florida, the concern is more about reliability than security.

But here is kicker. Many people liked both the paper ballots and the computerized ballot scanners, and were unwilling to mark the ballots and deposit them in boxes from which the ballots would be later taken and scanned (presumably by more reliable machines). Some of these people decided to come back later when the scanners were fixed, rather than trust election workers to handle the ballots properly.

I think that that may be my key lesson from election 2008: unreliable and untrustworthy  e-voting technology, along with not-entirely-trusted and all-too-human error-prone election officials, working together as “belt and suspenders” – and if the belt is on the fritz, then like Annie Fingh of Duval County Florida, I’ll try again later.

-- EJS

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