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April 11, 2024

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Spring Housing Guide

Voting: paper to electronic

It’s been almost a year since Wood County switched from the punch card ballot to the electronic touch-screen ballot for the November 2005 election, yet some critics still question whether votes are being cast securely – or accurately.

Some say the electronic machines make voting difficult for voters and poll workers who are less familiar with technology. Others argue the system lacks transparency, since votes cast remain “locked up” internally on the computers until the memory card containing the votes is taken out by a poll worker.

There is also concern that the transition to electronic voting was carried out in too much of a hurry.

“Everything was done in a huge rush for no good reason,” John Gideon, executive director of VotersUnite!, a non-partisan organization dedicated to ensuring fair and accurate elections, said. “Companies like Diebold have put out machines that are pretty much garbage.”

Some also say the machines, produced by companies like Diebold, Sequoia and Election Systems ‘ Software, can be hacked to change votes – a major concern in an election year where races are tight and voter turnout is expected to be high.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 required states to begin the shift from punch card or lever voting systems to electronic voting machines, based on paper ballot problems highlighted by the 2000 presidential election in Florida, which delayed official results for the race for weeks.

Precincts in most states were supposed to implement the new electronic system by 2004, but some precincts had until Jan. 1, 2006 to comply.

Wood County first began using the Diebold electronic machines in November 2005. For that election, the county received 488 Diebold machines from the state, and this year will distribute 42 more machines purchased last June at polls in the northern part of the county, such as Bowling Green, where turnout is anticipated to be the highest.

Uneasiness nothing new

Terry Burton, deputy director of the Wood County Board of Elections, said concerns about the accuracy and security of electronic machines are not surprising – questioning the voting process is natural no matter what system is used.

“What it really comes down to is ‘Do you believe in the system in general?'” he said. “There’s been a change in the culture lately, with a lot more skepticism about voting on a much larger scale.”

But Burton also said that if Wood County’s smooth transition from the punch card to the electronic ballot last year is any indication, then voters should not have much to worry about this year.

“We had almost zero complaints about the machines,” Burton said. “The transition was even easier than we had planned.”

In that election, all precincts were equipped with back-up paper ballots and extra technology assistants to deal with any problems that could arise with the electronic machines, Burton said, but “most of what we planned for never happened.”

Proper instruction is key

Burton attributes last year’s readiness to adopt the electronic voting to a more intensive training session all poll workers were required to attend to learn all the ins and outs of the machines.

When the punch-card system was in place, poll workers had to take a one-hour course every four years to remain eligible to work on Election Day.

But with the new electronic machines, poll workers must take a three-hour class every year to keep alert on electronic voting procedures.

The three-hour course is broken into two parts. The first part includes hands-on training about how to put up and take down the voting machines and other basic troubleshooting techniques.

The second part of the training has to do with law – such as what to do in certain scenarios like determining when a voter needs a provisional ballot.

Poll workers are also educated on how to transfer votes from the machines once the polls have closed, by removing a memory card and taking it directly to the Board of Elections. If a memory card is lost or destroyed, only an official from the Board of Elections may return to the polling site to insert a new one.

This process, Burton said, is one the Board of Elections takes very seriously, as a memory card that does not arrive back safely and quickly causes worry about tampering with votes.

“We have sheriffs who will take the poll worker back until we have all the cards we need,” Burton said. “We will not go home to bed until we have all the cards.”

Elderly poll workers struggle

Most poll workers, whose average age, Burton said, is about 60 years old, catch on quickly to the new technology – but a few have quit voluntarily when training became too much of an obstacle for them.

“Obviously a poll worker is not going to become technologically advanced at everything in three hours,” Burton said.

Kristin Vessey, who served as a poll worker in Wood County last year, said she felt training was adequate but she also witnessed several of her fellow poll workers quit out of frustration.

“Some older workers found it a struggle and dropped out for that reason,” she said. “We received a good training session, though, and I really enjoyed [being a poll worker].”

However, Peg Rosenfield, elections specialist for the Ohio League of Women Voters, said even poll workers who push themselves through the training still may not be 100 percent at ease with the machines.

“I think we’re expecting an awful lot of the poll workers,” Rosenfield said. “Many are older, they’re not terribly comfortable with the machines and it doesn’t take much for something to go wrong. If you make a small mistake in setting the machine up correctly, it won’t work at all.”

Playing on the safe side

Though most poll workers do complete training successfully, Burton said the Board of Elections takes an extra precaution by hiring “rovers” – locals selected for their expertise in technology – to visit all precinct locations throughout the day and fix any of the problems poll workers are not able to repair themselves.

Rovers must also complete a four-hour class to prepare them for anything, Burton said, though the most common issues are usually printer jams or trouble getting a machine to turn on.

Other problems such as hacking the Diebold machines, Burton said, have never arisen in Wood County’s polling stations.

“Hacking takes access and time, and in a precinct setting, you don’t have either,” he said. “If you are standing at the machine for more than 15 minutes, a poll worker is going to approach you.”

The possibility of a machine being hacked is extremely unlikely for a number of reasons, he said.

A hacker would need to plug some type of keyboard into the machine in order to give the system commands, and there is no place to plug it in on Diebold machines, since all plugs are locked and sealed, Burton said.

Even if a hacker somehow manages to break into a machine without being noticed, all machines are encrypted “like an ATM,” Burton said, so the average person would not know how to give the machine the commands necessary to change votes.

Still, if a poll worker notices any seals are broken on the machine, Burton said that machine will be taken out of service immediately.

Any votes cast on that machine prior to the damage being spotted would be manually counted from the paper audit trail, which is like a receipt that prints out of each ballot cast, not from the internal hard drive.

HAVA requires all electronic voting machines produce a paper trail so voters may check their progress on a hard copy.

It also ensures votes can be still be tallied in the event of a power outage, machine tampering or other problems that can occur with memory cards.

Retrace your steps

For critics of the Diebold machine, the paper trail can be considered the saving grace of electronic voting.

“Absolutely check the paper trail as you’re voting,” Rosenfield said. “The nice part about touch-screen electronic voting is you have the voter-verifiable paper trail to make sure your votes are being cast correctly. That’s a very important safeguard.”

Gideon said sometimes poll workers will neglect to make sure voters’ paper trails are printing properly.

“Review what you have done – look at the audit trail and make sure it has worked,” he said. “Make sure that printer actually prints something out.”

Burton said voters who have any doubts that they are using the electronic machines correctly should not hesitate to call a poll worker to help.

“If you don’t understand what you should be doing, ask a question. If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, ask someone else,” Burton said. “If the paper trail doesn’t match your vote, ask a question right then, don’t wait. It does no good to call us the next day wondering if your vote was cast correctly.”

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