Tuesday, June 6, 2006

My Day at the Polls

Today I spent several hours in Stockton, where I observed three polling places. Stockton is located in San Joaquin County, and used Diebold's TSx touchscreen voting machines for the first time since March 2004. The machines have been equipped with printers that produce a voter-verified paper record of each electronic ballot, as is now required under California law.

While I am happy that paper trail reform is now implemented, it was extremely disappointing to see how the printers were set up. There is a flap over the window on the printer unit where the paper record is displayed. If a voter wants to view the paper record, he or she must first lift up the flap. In the three polling places I visited there were no instructions being given to voters to lift the flap and inspect the record.

I do not recall seeing this flap on the demonstration unit I saw at the Secretary of State's office over a year ago. And I have no idea why Diebold placed it there. One pollworker told me it was there to protect the voter's ballot privacy, but since the paper record of the ballot scrolls out of site once a voter has finished using the unit, this explanation made no sense.

Having a flap covering the window that displays the paper record of the electronic ballot drastically reduces the likelihood that voters will verify the record, thereby undermining one of the key reasons why the printers are on the machines in the first place.

I also noticed a loud noise coming from the machines when people voted. It turned out to be the printer unit. Like the printer flap, I do not recall this kind of noise coming from the demonstration unit when it was on display at the Secretary of State's office.

It was a slow voting day at the polling places I visited, and I had plenty of time and opportunity to talk with pollworkers, inspect the machines, and ask questions of the few voters who came by to vote. Most the voters said they liked the touchscreens, a few said they did look at the paper record. Several pollworkers mentioned that voters were reluctant to return the voter access cards used to activate the machines, since many of them thought that their votes and possibly their names were stored on them.

While I was at the polling places I looked at the security seals that were placed over the memory card slots. These security seals (stickers, actually) were required to be placed on the machines by the Secretary of State in response to security vulnerabilities with the memory cards recently identified by Harri Hursti.

In the first polling place I visited, at the White Rose Church of Christ, all of the security seals were in place over the memory card slots. Those slots were also locked and the key was in the possession of the polling place supervisor. The second polling place I visited was the Sibley Community Center, where I was accompanied by a crew from the Newshour with Jim Lehrer. At this polling site I saw that only one of the four machines had the security seal over the memory card slot. Another slot above that one, where the "start" button for the machine is located, was open. I asked the supervisor why the slot was open and what happened to the seals. She said the slot should be closed, and pulled out her key and closed it and locked it.

Then she told me that it was hectic in the morning when they were setting up. Two pollworkers had failed to show up and the ones who did had trouble getting the machines up and running. The pollworkers were frantically trying to get things going, and in their haste removed all the security seals from the memory card slots. The supervisor contacted the elections office to find out what to do, and she placed all the security seals on a piece of paper with a note explaining what happened. She showed me the paper with the seals, and how the seals had changed color because they had been removed. The seals also had a bar code and a serial number on them, which is supposed to correspond with the memory card inside the machine.

At the last polling place I visited, I asked the supervisor if they would be checking the serial numbers on the seals against the numbers on the memory card at the end of the day, and was informed that this is not a required procedure. At this last site I also found another "start" button slot was left open, which a pollworker quickly shut and locked once I pointed it out. One pollworker at the last site, which was a fire station, mentioned that they had had some trouble getting the printer set up on one of the machines. He started describing it to me and I asked him if he could show me. So he got the key from the supervisor (apparently there is just one key for the machines, which opens the memory card slot, the start button slot and the printer unit), unlocked the printer, and opened it up. When I said that I thought the printers were supposed to remain shut during the election, he said they are, but I asked to see it so he showed it to me.

After my visit to Stockton, I headed back to Sacramento to vote in my own polling place. My county is using ES&S optical scan ballots, and AutoMARK units for accessibility. I decided to try out the AutoMARK. It turned out I was the first person to use it today, at 4:30 p.m. I fed my paper ballot into the machine, and started making selections. The machine is not very intuitive, and takes some getting used to. I tried some different things, like deselecting a candidate I had selected, and putting in a write-in candidate's name.

But halfway through my ballot, I got an "operator error" alert and a message saying I should contact the elections official. The pollworker came over, then an inspector/troubleshooter showed up. The machine had to be rebooted -- not just turned off, but unplugged -- and started back up again, which took eight minutes. I waited patiently and apologized, thinking I had done something to break it. It turned out that write-in votes were not allowed on the party's ballot I had selected, even though there were spaces for them on it. I'm not sure if my write-in votes, or the deselecting actions caused the machine to crash, or if it was some other problem. But we did get it back up and running, and I finished my selections, marked my ballot, fed it into the scanner, obtained my "I voted" sticker, and headed home.

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