Ohio will soon have a voting system that is uniform across the state. Last month Secretary of State Ken Blackwell ordered county election officials to replace all other systems with precinct-count optical scan machines by May 2006.
Voters will indicate their choices by filling in ovals with pens or pencils, a format familiar to anyone who has taken standardized, multiple-choice tests, such as the SAT and ACT.
Legislation requiring voter-verifiable, auditable paper trails rendered touch screen voting too expensive. Equipping all precincts with such machines would have cost nearly $190 million, while optical scan voting systems will cost only $100 million. A total of $106 million is available to Ohio counties from state and federal sources.
In addition to meeting these financial requirements, precinct-count optical scan systems are generally considered to be the most accurate and reliable voting method. Such accuracy is measured by residual votes — the difference between the total number of ballots cast and the number of votes cast for a particular race. Presidential races are generally used to measure accuracy, because it's assumed that fewer voters intentionally skip that race on the ballot than skip other races.
A study of the 2000 election by the University of California, Berkeley found that optical scan voting was the most accurate method used, producing an average residual vote rate of only 1.37 percent.
This compares to rates of 1.68 percent for touch-screen machines and 2.64 percent for punch cards, the least accurate method.
A similar study conducted by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project covered the 1988-2000 elections.
"Scanners have the lowest rate of uncounted, unmarked, and spoiled ballots in presidential races and in Senate and gubernatorial races ... Optical scanning has the best track record of all equipment types currently in use," the report says.
The two types of optical scan systems are precinct count and centralized count. In centralized count systems, ballots are transported to one location, where they are fed into a counting machine. Because voters aren't present when their ballots are counted, they can't be notified of problems. With precinct-count systems, voters insert their ballots into a counting machine at the polling location. If over-votes — the incorrect selection of more than one candidate — occur, the machine rejects the ballot and notifies the voter. Some precinct-count systems will also ask the voter if under-votes — skipped races on the ballot — are intentional.
Both systems selected for Ohio are precinct-count systems capable of notifying voters of both over-votes and under-votes. However, only the over-vote notification will be utilized, according to Carlo LoParo, Blackwell's spokesman. The federal Help America Vote Act requires only over-vote notification, and under-voting might be intentional, LoParo says. Yet many under-votes aren't intentional and could be corrected if the voter were notified of the error. Additionally, the systems Ohio has chosen don't reject under-voted ballots; they merely request confirmation from the voter that an under-vote was intentional.
Optical scan systems also meet the state's requirement for voter-verifiable, auditable paper trails; and although optical scan ballots can smudge if repeatedly mishandled, they maintain their integrity much better than punch card ballots. The voter's intent is also easier to ascertain, and sensible, uniform guidelines can be set as to what marks constitute a vote.
But optical scan systems aren't perfect. Numerous studies have found optical scan systems to be the most accurate, but bad ballots or misaligned or damaged sensors on a counting machine can lead to miscounts.
"Poorly cut ballots may not necessarily give identical results upon repeat counts ... AccuVote-OS units with slightly skewed sensors may not necessarily give identical results upon repeat counts," says an internal Diebold manual.
The AccuVote-OS is one of Ohio's approved optical scan systems.
Such problems aren't just theoretical possibilities. In 2000 one in every eight presidential votes was ignored by the optical scan system in Crittenden County, Ark. In the 2002 general election, Election System & Software (ES&S) machines recorded a landslide victory for two commissioners in Scurry County, Texas, but two hand recounts verified that the machines were wrong and that their opponents had won. In 1998, ES&S machines failed to count 44,000 votes in Dallas County, Texas; and in 2000, an ES&S machine produced 4 million votes from the 300 ballots fed into it in Allamakee County, Iowa. In 2000, overshadowed by hanging chads, a Diebold optical scan machine gave Bush 2,813 votes and actually deleted 16,022 Gore votes in Volusia County, Fla., where only 412 votes were cast. ES&S and Diebold are the makers of Ohio's two approved optical scan systems.
Because of such potential errors, optical scan voting should be combined with regular audits of voting results.
"Election officials generally don't use the ballots to check the machine count," writes voting system guru Bev Harris in her book, Black Box Voting. "If you don't audit properly, optical scan machines are no safer than paperless touch screens."
Experts at the Cal Tech/MIT Voting Project agree.
"The choice of technology is not the only determinant for establishing a voter verified audit system," their report says. "There also needs to be a process in place for reviewing elections and certifying the validity of the results ... Careful audits of election results would provide valuable information about the performance of the entire voting system."
Although Ohio lawmakers require audits to ensure the integrity of the state lottery, they don't require audits to ensure the integrity of democracy. Because such audits are not required or funded in Ohio, they are almost never performed.
Prodded into action by financial concerns, Blackwell has taken a significant step toward improving the accuracy and reliability of Ohio's elections by selecting optical scan voting systems for the state. If he truly wants to ensure the integrity of the vote, Blackwell will also require that precinct count machines employ their full capabilities by notifying voters of under-votes, and he will push for the mandatory audit of all elections in Ohio.