COLLEGE PARK – State election officials say they are satisfied that thousands of new touch-screen voting machines will function properly in four counties this fall, although experts have raised concerns about the accuracy and usability of the machines.
Similar touch-screen systems have already been the subject of lawsuits in Florida, said one college professor, and two University of Maryland researchers issued a report in May that detailed problems with the machine’s ease of use.
But state and county officials said that in 11 elections in the state where the machines had been used, they had encountered only one problem, which was corrected, and that voters have been pleased at demonstrations of the machines.
“We find that there are no concerns that we have,” said Joe Torre, a voting system certification coordinator with the state board of elections.
Torre said the new machines record the voter’s choices directly to the computer’s memory, replacing older systems such as optical scan, punch cards or lever-based machines. He said the AccuVote TS machines, produced by DieBold, will be used this fall in Allegany, Dorchester, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, home to about 42 percent of the state’s registered voters.
The counties are the first in what is a state-mandated effort to have a unified voting system statewide by 2006. The state and counties split the $17 million to buy the first 5,000 machines, but Torre could not say how much it will cost to deploy the machines through the entire state.
“These machines are fantastic,” said Sherman Bernett, an election technician in Prince George’s County. “I can’t say enough good things about them.”
But Bryn Mawr College Professor Rebecca Mercuri has raised plenty of concerns about the touch-screen machines.
She said the machines are essentially black boxes that give voters no way of verifying that their choices were accurately recorded. She said the fact that votes were backed up in several places on the computer simply meant that bad votes could be recorded incorrectly multiple times, leading to an “Enron-style” internal audit by the machine.
“The reason I’m calling it an Enron-style of audit is because it’s an internal self-audit. It’s not an independent audit,” she said.
“No amount of examination can prove that this thing is correct,” Mercuri said of the software that runs the machines. “It’s the nature of software, you can’t assure it for correctness.”
But Mark Radke, director of voting industries for DieBold Election Systems, said the machines’ failure rate was “miniscule.”
Paul Valette, operations manager for the Montgomery County Board of Elections, said that during an April election for the student member of the board of education, some voters had problems with smartcards they use to activate the voting machine.
“We had to replace a sizable number of (smartcard) encoders. There were schools where, until we were able to get out there with encoders, they were unable to continue the election,” he said. He said voting at those sites was delayed for less than an hour before new encoders and smartcards were brought out from the warehouse.
Torre said the smartcards had been produced to incorrect specifications, and after the cards and encoders had all been replaced, testing confirmed that they worked properly.
Two researchers at the University of Maryland College Park, meanwhile, found problems with the machines’ smartcard slot, as well as inconsistent use of terms and a confusing and difficult to navigate audio ballot.
Benjamin B. Bederson, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab, and Paul S. Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, reported in May that one of the two machines they used for their tests suffered a “catastrophic failure” when the smartcard jammed in the machine’s slot. It was unusable for the rest of the test.
Besides taking a machine out of service for the day, Herrnson said such a failure could worry voters waiting to use it as well as the people who had used that machine previously.
Torre said that the state was working to address some of the problems cited by Bederson and Herrnson. The audio ballot for the visually impaired voters, for example, was a sample recorded on a laptop at the State Elections Board office. The official ballot will be recorded in the studios of the National Federation of the Blind and would have to meet that group’s standards.
Torre also said the NFB was working with DieBold to produce a more user- friendly interface for the audio ballot by 2004.
In the meantime, elections officials are offering 95 demonstrations of the machines in the four counties between now and Sept. 26 as well as an online demonstration. Information on the demonstrations can be found at http://www.mdvotes.org.
Bernett said Prince George’s County elections officials were receiving requests every day for demonstrations. Valette said demonstrations in Montgomery County had been very successful.
“They have gone great,” Valette said. “We have had about 70,000 people actually touch the screens. We expect to triple that number before the primary.”
Voters who tried out the new machines at a recent demonstration in Beltsville were also impressed.
“I think that this kind of thing can be a big help in a close elections,” said Dan Baker, of Beltsville.
Roxan Bernard, of College Park, said she liked the new machine better than the old ones.
“It’s wonderful. It’s very easy. It’s user friendly,” she said.