For most Americans the election has been over for two weeks, but for the state and local officials tasked with administering elections the process continues. Most jurisdictions are involved in the certification process, during which vote totals are confirmed, absentee ballots are tabulated and the status of provisional ballots are determined. Over half the states conduct a post election audits of some ballots. And of course some jurisdictions are involved in recounts of close contests. Most of the time the demanding work of election officials goes unnoticed and unacknowledged until something goes wrong or comes under the microscope in the politically charged atmosphere of a recount.
The 2010 elections quietly marked a milestone in election technology history. For the first time in over a hundred years, this was the first national election in which mechanical lever machines were not used. Lever machines were at one time so ubiquitous in US culture that the phrase “pull the lever” is still the go-to phrase we use to mean “cast the vote”. Most states made the transition from levers years ago, beginning in the 1980s when the first optical scanners were employed. But in New York State, this election was the first one without levers in a very long time. Fortunately, the new technology the State chose to use is paper ballots and optical scanners, not paperless electronic voting. And those paper ballots are proving their worth already in several disputed elections around the state.
Media reports of “problems with the new voting systems” really have it the wrong way around. Perhaps it’s because New York isn’t yet used to having an actual paper record of votes, so we don’t yet understand the value of a recount. When outcomes are uncertain or disputed, recounting paper ballots is the best way there is to find out who really won an election. New York’s new ability to count the paper is not a problem, it’s the solution.
Back in late August, Harris County (Houston)’s warehouse with all 10,000 of our voting machines, burned to the ground. As I blogged at the time, our county decided to spend roughly $14 million of its $40 million insurance settlement on purchasing replacement electronic voting machines of the same type destroyed in the fire, and of the same type that I and my colleagues found to be unacceptably insecure in the 2007 California Top-to-Bottom Report. This emergency purchase was enough to cover our early voting locations and a smattering of extras for Election Day. We borrowed the rest from other counties, completely ignoring the viral security risks that come with this mixing and matching of equipment. (It’s all documented in the California report above. See Section 7.4 on page 77. Three years later, and the vendor has fixed none of these issues.)
Well, the county also spent the money to print optical-scan paper ballots (two sheets of 8.5″ x 17″, printed front and back), and when I went to vote this morning, I found my local elementary school had eight eSlate machines, all borrowed from Travis County (Austin), Texas. They also had exactly one booth set up for paper ballot voting. After I signed in, the poll worker handed me the four-digit PIN code for using an eSlate before I could even ask to use paper. “I’d like to vote on paper.” “Really? Uh, okay.” Apparently I was only the second person that day to ask for paper and they were in no way making any attempt to give voters the option to vote on paper.