The Voting Machine Problem

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THE FLUKE WAS NOT THE TECHNOLOGY’S PERFECTLY ORDINARY SHORTCOMINGS BUT THE CLOSE RACE.

When the Votomatic, as it was called, entered use in California in 1963, Gov. Edmund G. Brown proclaimed it would “revolutionize the system of voting.” Curiously, punch cards were playing a part in a very different kind of revolution in California at the same moment. While the 1964 election was going on, the radical Free Speech movement was being born, at Harris and Rouverol’s own university, Berkeley. The movement’s leaders chose the punch card as their emblem for the depersonalization and enforced conformity they felt they were fighting. A student pinned a sign to his chest that said: I AM A UC STUDENT. PLEASE DON’T BEND, FOLD, SPINDLE, OR MUTILATE ME . Others began wearing cards as nametags, with holes punched out to form the letters FSM or the word STRIKE . They began burning the punch cards with which they had registered for school along with their draft cards. By 1970 the symbolism was so pervasive that Earth Day was popularly represented by a poster that showed the planet over the words DO NOT FOLD, SPINDLE, OR MUTILATE .

Meanwhile Rouverol’s invention caught on. And it revealed its shortcomings. To begin with, it sacrificed accuracy for speed. As Rebecca Mercuri, an expert on electronic vote counting, put it, “With any marginal card, the card reader says, ‘I’m going to throw it out.’” When cards were run through the machines a second time, in a recount, incompletely detached chads would fall out, so usually every candidate would pick up votes. In 1968 in Detroit, a rainstorm drenched a load of ballots on their way to be counted. In 1989 the Virginia gubernatorial election couldn’t be finalized until mid-December as recounting went on amid the same disagreements about chads heard last year in Florida. In 1996 Massachusetts held a recount that continued for months and included ballots dimpled by dull styluses. By 2000 virtually everything complained of in Florida had happened before, and one state, Iowa, had banned the machines as far back as 1984.

Rouverol, who is 83, testified at hearings in Florida last November, and true to his calling as an inventor (he holds more than 200 patents, mostly having to do with gearing), he blames all the problems on the expiration of his patent and his own control over the invention, in 1982. After that, he said, “there came on the market machines that weren’t quite as good. … Most of what’s gone on and what has created this messy situation developed a number of years after.” Specifically, during voting the punch card sits against a rubber backing, and if the backing isn’t maintained or is replaced with a cheaper material, the stylus will have a harder time making a complete hole.

Needless to say, the manufacturers of the later versions of the machines disagree completely with Rouverol’s diagnosis. In any event, it is a delicate technology. In Palm Beach County, after every election three workers empty every one of 5,000 machines of chads, apply a protective silicone spray to the rubber backings, check for problems, and then put the machines in storage in climate-controlled rooms. Before the next election, they test every machine with copies of the actual ballots that will be used.

Why such a temperamental old technology for such a momentous job as electing a President? For two simple reasons: because it’s affordable and because it’s not clearly worse than anything else available. In New York City, where the earlier mechanical machines still serve, 70 repairmen roam the city on election day from 5:00 A.M. until midnight, trying to fix breakdowns. They never catch them all. The two newer technologies that have been establishing themselves in the last couple of decades—optical-scan devices, where the voter marks a ballot with a special pen whose writing can be read by a computer, and ATM-style direct-to-computer voting—have problems too.

In 1998 Hawaii tried a new optical system and found voters using their own pens and pencils instead of the ones supplied. The counting machines got clogged with ink and lead and couldn’t read the ballots. Arizona tried online voting for its Democratic primary last year and ran into various technical problems. The chief danger in computerized voting has been well summed up by Jim Adler, founder of votehere.net, which runs online elections: “Keeping the ballots secret and at. the same time making sure that the ballots can be audited is a daunting task.” Finally, a punch-card machine can be replaced for about $200, whereas a touch-screen computer is likely to cost $3,500 and an optical system $6,000. That’s an insurmountable difference for many hard-strapped municipalities contemplating machines to use maybe twice a year.

The bottom line, in the words of Deborah Phillips, chairman of the Voting Integrity Project, in Arlington, Virginia, is that “in voting technology, there are no quick fixes or magic bullets.” It may be hard to accept the idea that no matter how we vote there will always be error, but it’s also hard to accept the idea that as the statisticians kept telling us, Florida in 2000 was a statistical dead heat anyway, so close that the margin of victory or loss lay within the margin of error of any method of counting. There was no way any technology could produce an unchallengeable winner. The fluke was not the trouble with the technology but the closeness of the race. It multiplied the importance of even the minutest inaccuracy.