Adventures in Voting

New York City is trying something new today. After an initial rollout in the primaries, an optical scan voting system has replaced the bulky lever machines used for decades. How well has this transition to newer technology gone? Last week the head of the city’s Board of Elections was fired because of problems with the new system during the primaries.

My own experience with the new system this morning was mixed. I am a fan of analog technology, not because I’m a miser and don’t like innovation, but because digital technology has yet to match the reliability of analog in a wide range of places, and that is an indisputable fact. For example, not once can I ever remember losing a telephone call between two landlines, while dropped cell phone calls are a frequent occurrence, with some carriers experiencing rates of between one and two percent a month or higher, amounting to millions of calls a day.

When it comes to voting machines, digital technology has been more than a headache. In some places, it has been a disaster. In Florida and California, electronic voting machines made by Diebold had numerous problems, including undercounting votes, switching votes, faulty calibration on touch screen machines, and vulnerability to hacking, among others.

The scale of problems with different voting systems is perplexing, especially since the practice of accounting, which is what voting is, has been around for so long. Additionally, cash registers have been present in countless stores throughout the world for well over a century, and their reliability is unquestioned. How we have not been able to translate such a long track record of success to voting is not a mystery, politics being politics, but it is a travesty that such tried and tested solutions exist yet we still grapple with this every election cycle.

I walked into the polling station today and was handed my ballot, wrapped in a manila envelope for privacy, and directed to a small kiosk designed to keep anyone from peeking. There I encountered my first problem. The pen used for marking the ballot was missing. A minor snafu, and the only one of the day that had any potential of disrupting my vote. I moved over to another kiosk, and all was well. I looked down at my ballot, and saw something that looked identical to the face of the big voting machines, shrunk down to legal sized paper. The law in this state stipulates that all races must be visible on a single ballot sheet, and there they all were, in about 8pt type. There were magnifiers available for those having trouble reading the ballot, but this single page law is out of date. It made sense with the old machines, where the rather large front face had plenty of room for everybody, and there wasn’t a way to have multiple pages, but with the new method, single page ballots are just crammed too full of information.

There are many different and complicated methods that have been employed in other states to allow for more than one page, but the simplest solution would be to just provide voters with multiple sheet ballots. That is a minor adjustment compared to overhauling the entire voting method itself, as was just done.

Ballot read and marked, I walked over to the scanning machines. A poll worker set up the scanner quickly, I fed the ballot in, the scanner recorded a vote as having been cast, and that was that. I walked out of there sure I had voted, but unsure whether or not my vote had been counted correctly. The scanner only registered that it had been fed a vote. There was nothing to tell me if I had undervoted, voted for more than one candidate in a race, or failed to fill in one of the ovals under a candidate’s name completely, also resulting in an undervote. There’s nothing uncommon about this. A voter is solely responsible for making sure they vote correctly, and if they are unsure, they can ask a volunteer at their polling place for help. But when I fed the ballot into the scanner and there was no substantial information spit back at me, I felt like something was left unfinished.

In this day and age, those of us who are used to technology are also used to being presented with as much information as possible. We feed something into a scanner, such as a check at an ATM, we expect to see an image on the screen for confirmation. Same goes for the optical scanners at the polling place. I wanted to make sure that what the machine saw was what I saw, but the machine was having none of it. I asked the poll volunteer multiple times in different ways if there was a way to confirm my vote, but was told there was not. If this were an ATM, I wouldn’t be all that concerned about the accuracy of the machine. When money is involved, the technology is pretty reliable. But this is voting, something that is notorious for its failings, and after having voted now in nine Congressional elections cycles in two states, I have not once been shown that my vote was actually counted, whether it was punch cards back in Ohio, lever machines in New York, or now optical scanners.

Optical scanners allow for showing a voter how their vote was counted. This is a capability that should be added for New York’s voters.

In the end, I was pleased that I got to mark an actual ballot. That made the process seem more real to me. There was a name, and I made a mark under it. But then it all fell apart when I used the scanner. Once again, I was asked to place my trust in the system, to believe that my vote was being counted without confirmation. Quite frankly, if I had that amount of faith in the political system, I wouldn’t feel a need to vote.