Thursday, February 21, 2008
County mulls voting printer ordeal
By SUE WATSON
The Marshall County Board of Supervisors, at two recent meetings, heard a proposal from the election commission to remove the external paper roll from the county’s voting machines.
Circuit clerk Lucy Carpenter recommended the paper roll printer mechanism be removed from the Diebold voting machines because poll workers have so much trouble with paper jams that cause lots of election-day problems. She said the machines are equipped with plenty of features to assure a paper document of the ballots can be retrieved, if needed.
The board of supervisors would have to approve the measure, then the U.S. Department of Justice would have the final say. Carpenter cited one other Mississippi county that asked permission to remove the device from the machines.
Commissioner Marie Palmer said removing the paper would cut down on expense and save lost time and trouble for poll workers who have to undo the paper jams causing a slowdown in voting when machines jam.
Carpenter added that the printers were not in the original plan when counties purchased the machines and that the voting machines have an internal means of saving each ballot cast. Voters are able to look at each vote they cast on the computer screen before they cast their ballot, she said.
The permission could be received from the U.S. Department of Justice in time for the November general election, Carpenter said. Jackson County has already asked for permission to remove the printers from its machines.
“My experience is people coming in and using the voting machines don’t look at the tape anyway,” she said. “Our other machines (touch screens) didn’t have the paper trail.”
Chuck Thomas asked if the old voting machines should be kept on inventory.
“They are antiques now,” Carpenter said.
Supervisor Ronnie Joe Bennett said there is nationwide sentiment to go back to paper ballots.
“Colorado is going back,” Palmer said.
“Some people talk about vote by phone, too,” said Carpenter. “I don’t think we’ll ever see going back to paper ballots.”
She said the Legislature is likely to take up an early voting bill this year.
Bennett said he favors early voting, which could be handled in the county by setting up voting machines at the precincts a few days prior to regular election days.
“Lots of people said they couldn’t go to the poll on (the last) election day,” he said.
“I agree that would be a convenience to people,” said Carpenter.
Supervisor George Zinn III mentioned problems in the last election where poll workers in his district were late returning boxes to the courthouse because of problems closing out the voting machines.
He asked if more poll-worker education would help.
“We had poll-worker training before the election, as you know, and we tried to prevent that. It just seems like it’s harder for some workers to learn this system and more particularly problems with changing the paper,” Carpenter said. “We will continue to educate them.”
Following the discussion, supervisors motioned to put the old touch-screen voting machines up for auction on e-Bay.
In an afterthought, Palmer added that electronic poll books are the next big change in elections.
“If we get early voting, we will have to have them,” Carpenter said.
She added that Secretary of State Delbert Hoseman is pushing for electronic poll books and for reregistration of voters statewide.
The commissioners and Carpenter returned to the board room at the February 11 meeting with commissioners Palmer and Betty Whaley and Irv Priest, consultant to the election commission.
Also present were members of the community - Al Beck, W.A. McMillan, Paul Lampley and others.
Carpenter said they would do a demonstration of the machines with a mock vote where supervisors would mark their votes on paper then cast them on the machines. Afterward the voting machine, operated without the printer, would print out their ballots from the internal memory on the voting machine or the memory card.
“We do have a paper trail, even though there is no printer on the machine now,” Priest said.
“By analogy of e-mail, you can read an e-mail, save it and not print it out, but if you want to go back later you can open the e-mail and print it out,” said Carpenter.
She said the voting machine keeps each ballot cast in the internal memory of the computer and the machine can produce a paper record of the ballots after polls close, if needed for a criminal investigation.
Showing the machine with the paper roll door open, Priest said the inside roll is used to print the voting results to paste on the door at the precinct and two copies of the report are produced for the courthouse records.
“But there is no printer on the side of the machine,” he said. “The votes are stored in the machine (on the hard drive) and on the (portable) memory card.”
He held up the memory card for observers.
Priest then told a story of where a poll worker had accidentally wiped out the memory on the memory card but the voting results inside the voting machine’s hard drive were uploaded to a blank memory card within three minutes of the human error.
Then supervisors participated in a logic and accuracy test of the voting machine where they cast votes using a mock ballot.
Discussion continued on the issue of a paper trail with Whaley reminding observers that the former voting machines used in elections did not have a paper trail.
“In essence, this is our paper trail,” Priest said, pointing to the voting machine and the memory card.
Afterward, Lampley asked if the reason for wanting to remove the printers was to cut costs.
“Cost and time,” said Palmer.
She said each roll of paper costs $1.90 each and that commissioners spend days unrolling the paper printouts off the spindles after an election so the spindles can be reused.
On big ballots one roll of paper will print about 75 ballots, she said.
“I counted at least four ways this may not work,” said Lampley, including the possibility of a memory wipe-out.
“No, four ways to recover (the cast ballots), not ways to be destroyed,” said Priest.
“So, voters are just getting acclimated to the system?” asked Lampley.
Carpenter said commissioners were just asking to remove the troublesome external printers.
“Do you look in the (printer) door when you vote?” Palmer asked.
“No,” said Lampley.
Palmer restated the problems the printers cause at the polls including several things that will cause the voting machine not to work and the problem of storage of printouts.
Lampley suggested more time was needed to review the printer paper problems before asking the justice department for permission to remove the external printer.
Carpenter said in any case, in the upcoming March election, the printers will remain on the machines.
“We would not have time to change procedures so that’s the reason I’m proposing November,” she said. “I’m suggesting we are going to have six or eight months to review it or the board could withdraw its motion (to remove the printers).”
“My suggestion to the board is to consider carefully,” said Lampley. “Let’s study this more.”
He cited a problem in the past when some votes were lost on the old equipment that did not produce a paper trail.
“That mind-set is still there,” he said. “People say they won’t vote because it (the election) is going a certain way, anyway.”
Al Beck then asked numerous questions, citing problems in the last election in Tunica County. He wanted to know how long the print-outs are kept and how long the machines keep the votes on any election.
Carpenter said the paper print-outs, by Mississippi Code, must be kept two years in case the election results are contested should there be a criminal investigation.
But the information on the memory cards does not have to be kept after the election results are certified, she said.
“The memory is still on the hard drive of the machine,” Beck said. “So, you have enough memory to keep every election?”
Priest answered that the voting machine has enough memory to save election information from two to three years.
“There does come a point when the memory gets full and the machine deletes it (information) off the back end (the oldest information),” Priest said.
Beck suggested that if there was ever a case of human error, the information backed up in the machine could be lost.
“Obviously, there are some of us who are not knowledgeable enough to answer all your questions, including me,” said Carpenter. “Dr. Lampley is president of the NAACP. I think his request is reasonable. Obviously, he has some concerns. I’m asking the board to delay submission (of our request) until after the presidential election (November 4, 2008).
“After the election, I am asking Mr. Beck, Dr. McMillan, Dr. Lampley, and any others who are interested to come assist us in testing the logic of these machines. Hopefully, we can come back to this board and ask...(to remove the external printers).”
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