Our Future at the Polls

Our Future at the Polls

By Steve Jacobson

It seems only yesterday when many of us cast a completely private vote for the first time, but the AutoMARK voting machines we have come to know are getting old and no longer manufactured.  Therefore, Minnesota Secretary of State, Steve Simon, has begun looking into the future to figure out which machines to use in Minnesota.  As part of that process, Judy Sanders and I attended a meeting on June 25 to hear him outline some of the current thinking and request our input.  Knowing this meeting was going to occur, we brought the information released to us in advance to our state board meeting in Rochester earlier in June, and that discussion helped us define some concerns. 

We learned that, while the AutoMARK has served us well, it has been quite a challenge to use and maintain.  Besides general programming for each ballot, the ink supply must be checked and there is some cleaning that must occur to insure clear printing.  In addition, the printer must be calibrated to make certain that the ballot is marked accurately.  This needs to be done for each voting machine before every primary and general election, and local elections.  The machines are also very large and heavy, over 50 pounds, usually requiring two people to move one.  If the machine is jarred when it is moved from its final testing location to the polling place, it can lose its calibration, resulting in a service call on Election Day.  Therefore, the office of the Secretary of State is trying to look for better solutions as well as a way forward.

One of the machines that has come to their attention is made by Election Systems and Software, (ES&S, the same company that made the AutoMARK), and is called the ExpressVote.  This machine is an example of a technology that might be far easier to maintain.  It weighs less than 20 pounds, prints with a thermoprinter that uses special paper, requires no ink, and does not require the same calibration as does the AutoMARK.  Its user interface is very much the same as the AutoMARK and it produces a paper ballot that is scanned and counted along with all other ballots.  This ballot can be retained and counted in the event of a recount, and in that respect, complies with Minnesota law.  One of our concerns was that the same vote tabulators count our ballots, so this was welcome news. 

Of course, nothing is ever quite so simple.  Here is why moving to this new machine requires some thought on our part.  While it does produce a paper ballot, it does not simply mark the regular ballot, as the AutoMARK does.  Rather, it prints out the choices made and prints a bar code that the vote tabulator reads.  By doing this, the printer does not require careful calibration because it does not place marks inside small boxes or ovals on the regular ballot.  Having a printer that is less mechanical allows the printer to be smaller and lighter, and there is no need to check the ink supply.  However, the ballot is smaller than the regular ballot, and is therefore physically identifiable and less private.  Because of the different nature of the ballot, it does not comply with current state law that specifies everyone must use the same ballot.

Therefore, the Secretary of State is considering sponsoring legislation that would allow machines such as the ExpressVote to be certified for use in Minnesota.  Such legislation would not prevent the AutoMARKs from continuing as long as they work, but it would open up more options for replacements.  He is seeking input from disability groups before proceeding with legislation to see what would need to be included to address concerns and gain support. 

The privacy of these ballots is our primary remaining concern.  Some will quickly tell us that the AutoMARK is not perfect in guarding privacy.  Even though the ballots are the same as every other ballot, the marks placed on the ballot are easy to identify because they are just too perfect to have been marked by hand.  Still, a ballot with a different look and shape such as those produced by the ExpressVote, would be more easily identified.  One solution that would provide some protection would be to require that a minimum number of votes be cast on these smaller ballots.  If only one or two ballots were cast using the ExpressVote, it would mean that during a recount, it could be obvious who cast those ballots.  On the other hand, perhaps all poll workers could be required to use the alternative machines.  If there are more than one or two ballots cast using the ExpressVote or similar machine, the identity of the voter could not be connected with a specific ballot.  There are other possible approaches to the privacy issue as well.  Of course, there is nothing to prevent anyone from using these machines, but it is felt that leaving the number of identifiable ballots to random chance is not a sufficient guarantee of privacy.

Judy and I tried the ExpressVote at the June 25 meeting.  For all practical purposes, it works just like the AutoMARK in terms of voting.  The keypad is different in that it is on the end of a cord so it can be moved around, which makes it more convenient for some voters.  Like the AutoMARK, though, the keys are brailled and have differing shapes making them very identifiable. 

The only real issue that we can see is protecting ballot privacy.  We concluded that if there is some guarantee our ballots are not the only ones cast using that machine, then the improvements outweigh the drawbacks.  It seems as though there is serious interest in instituting privacy safeguards, but we will continue monitoring and influencing this process with your help.

There will be future meetings to discuss remaining concerns through specific legislation.  If you have questions or comments, please contact Jennifer Dunnam (612-203-2738, jennifer.dunnam1829@gmail.com), Judy Sanders (612-375-1625, jsanders.nfb@comcast.net) or me (952-927-7694, steve.jacobson@visi.com).