Voters Find Some Machines Harder to Use
By SEWELL CHAN
With New York State facing a looming deadline to modernize its
election technology, a new report offers evidence that one of the two
major types of voting machines being considered has a higher rate of
unrecorded votes, suggesting that it is too confusing for many people.
The report, which the Brennan Center for Justice at New York
University School of Law intends to release today, examined election
records from thousands of counties across the nation since 2000. It is
likely to animate long-simmering debates across the state's 62
counties, which face a December deadline for deciding how to replace
antiquated voting equipment.
For an overwhelming majority of the state's 11.6 million registered
voters, the changes will mean the end of the creaky lever machines
that have been used for decades.
One of the two types of machines under consideration is the
direct-recording electronic or D.R.E. systems, in which voters push a
button or touch a screen to choose a candidate, and the ballot is
automatically recorded and counted.
The other is the optical-scan system, in which voters mark an oval or
arrow next to a candidate's name on a paper ballot, which is then
scanned into a machine at the precinct, allowing the voter to find and
fix any errors.
The choice, however, is further complicated because the State Board of
Elections has ruled that state law requires the use of a "full face"
ballot a ballot that displays all candidates for all races on a
single page or screen.
The Brennan Center disagrees with the state board's interpretation
that a full-face ballot is required in New York.
In January, the Connecticut attorney general, Richard Blumenthal,
concluded that contrary to a widely held belief there, Connecticut law
did not require full-face ballots.
The direct-recording electronic system is not inherently flawed, the
report found, but when it is combined with full-face ballots, there
seems to be more difficulty, particularly in areas with more black,
Hispanic and low-income voters.
Such voters, according to the report, would find it easier to use
digital machines that allow voters to make one choice and then flip to
the next page, which is similar to what customers do at A.T.M.'s and
airport check-in kiosks that dispense boarding passes. But the
full-face requirement precludes the use of such machines.
In the absence of that option, optical-scan machines would be the best
choice for counties, said Lawrence D. Norden, an associate counsel at
the Brennan Center and an author of the report.
To adopt electronic machines with the full-face requirement, he said
yesterday, "virtually guarantees that thousands of votes are going to
be lost at every election."
At stake in the decision between the two major types of machines is
some $200 million in federal financing that the state will spend on
new machines and other steps to modernize voting. To promote their
products, a handful of manufacturers have hired lobbyists and
aggressively courted county election commissioners.
John A. Ravitz, the executive director of the New York City Board of
Elections, said yesterday that he had read a draft of the Brennan
Center's report and that its findings would be carefully reviewed by
the board's 10 members.
"We're continuing to gather as much information as possible on both
types of systems, both optical scan and D.R.E.," said Mr. Ravitz, a
Bo Lipari, executive director of New Yorkers for Verified Voting, an
organization that has been pressing for adoption of the optical-scan
machines, said he hoped the report would have a major effect on the
decision-making by counties.
"The implications of this report clearly show that the only viable
voting system for New York State is precinct-based optical scans,"
said Mr. Lipari, who represents the League of Women Voters of New York
State on a committee that advises the state elections board on voting
However, support for the optical-scan ballots is by no means assured.
Although optical-scan advocates say their systems are more
cost-effective, proponents of direct-recording electronic system say
the electronic machines do not waste paper and are easier for disabled
people to use.
In March, the Justice Department sued New York State for failing to
overhaul its election system as required by the Help America Vote Act
of 2002, which was intended to prevent a recurrence of the Florida
election debacle of 2000 and to help disabled people to vote. Unable
to agree on a unified response to the federal law, Albany passed the
decision along to localities.
For the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 election, the state and
federal governments have agreed on a stopgap plan involving temporary
machines for use by the disabled. But the counties still must choose
machines to adopt over the long term. The state has yet to identify
which machines will be acceptable. Eleven devices, made by a total of
six manufacturers, are under consideration.
Besides New York, only one other state Delaware uses full-face
ballots statewide, although some counties in Arkansas, Indiana,
Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Tennessee also use
them, according to David C. Kimball, a political scientist at the
University of Missouri at St. Louis and a co-author of the Brennan
For the report, Dr. Kimball reviewed election records for thousands of
counties in 2000, 2002 and 2004. He compared the residual-vote rate
the difference between the number of ballots cast and the number of
valid votes cast in a particular contest across several voting
systems. Residual votes occur because of "undervoting," when voters
intentionally or unintentionally make no selection, or by
"overvoting," when voters select too many candidates, invalidating the
ballot for a particular contest.
Dr. Kimball found that elections involving both a touch-screen or
push-button system and a full-face ballot generated a residual vote
rate of 1.2 percent, compared with 0.7 percent for optical-scan
ballots that are counted at the precinct.
For the study, he examined records for the 2004 presidential election
from 2,402 counties. He found that the disparity between the two
systems, in the percentage of unrecorded votes, was even higher in
counties where the median income was less than $25,000 (2.8 percent
versus 1.4 percent), where blacks made up more than 30 percent of the
population (1.3 percent versus 0.9 percent) and where Hispanics made
up more than 30 percent of the population (2.0 percent versus 1.2
(The report also examined two variants of the main new voting systems
that are not applicable in New York State. These are optical-scan
ballots that are counted centrally and do not allow voters to check
their ballot for errors, and "scrolling" direct-recording electronic
systems, which do not meet the "full face" requirement.)
"Any design feature that makes it more confusing or places more of a
burden on the user increases the likelihood of errors, and that effect
is more dramatic in low-income and minority communities," Dr. Kimball
Mr. Norden added: "The digital divide is real. Full-face touch screen
will put low-income and minority voters at a particular disadvantage."
The report's other two authors were Jeremy M. Creelan of the law firm
Jenner & Block and Whitney Quesenberry, a designer who helps companies
makes their Web sites easier to use.