Does wet paper pose a threat to optical scanned paper ballots?

I’ve written and spoken recently about the need for election officials to think through potential problems with their voting systems and to produce contingency plans for when things go wrong (for example, security threats, large-scale problems, or natural disasters). I talked about this again a few weeks ago at the AEI/Brookings election reform workshop.

But as I was reading through the latest edition of Newsweek this evening, I saw a story that didn’t at first seem very related to voting technology. But I later scrambled to grab the issue of Newsweek out of the recycling, because I realized that the story may have some very important ramifications for optically scanned paper ballots. And I then thought that election officials using optical scanned ballots might have an enemy that I never seriously though about — humidity.

Here’s the basic problem. As recounted by the Newsweek story, recently at least four thousand high school students throughout the nation received word from the College Board, the entity that administers the dread SAT, that their SAT scores were scored inaccurately — their actual score was greater than what they were initially told. Amazingly, the number of incorrectly scored tests is somewhat greater than 4000, as there were some unknown number of scores (the College Board is quoted in the story as saying “substantially fewer than 4000”) that were incorrectly scored higher than they should have been, but these students are not being contacted and their scores are not being changed (why the error has such a skewed distribution, that is, producing a greater number of incorrectly lower scores than incorrectly greater scores, is not clearly addressed in the article). So the number of incorrectly scored tests is greater than 4000, but apparently less than 8000.

In some cases, the errors look relatively large. It seems that forensic analysis by the College Board traced the errors to one batch of tests, those conducted last October. But the Newsweek story noted that the distribution of errors was potentially problematic for the students taking the October SAT:

A total of 495,000 students around the country took the SAT in that sitting, meaning that fewer than 1 percent actually saw their scores change. And in most cases, it might not have made a difference: 83 percent of those affected lost only 10 to 40 points. But some 200 students missed out on more than 100 points, and the scores of 16 were off by 200 to 400 points.

But what does this have to do with voting technology?

A contractor for Pearson Educational Measurement is quoted in the story as blaming the scanning technology used to assess SAT tests. He said:

“On the day of the test administration, in the Northeast part of the country, there was heavy, heavy rainfall. We’re thinking the test documents expanded because of the moisture in the air.”

Then the theory goes on:

At the Austin, Texas, scanning facility to which they were shipped, they may have sat in a warehouse for just two to three hours — not long enough to dry before they were sent through the machines, and some answers on the expanded paper didn’t align with the scanners. Tests from other parts of the country may have picked up extra points because they had been filled in too lightly or contained stray pencil marks.

So the theory is not blaming the heavy rain for actually getting the test forms wet, but for just providing enough humidity to distort the paper sufficiently so as to render their alignment with the scanning devices problematic.

Now we have a new problem to wonder about on rainy election days. In the past we tended to just be concerned about how rain influenced voter turnout. But now we might need to worry about humidity levels, especially as the most recent estimates have at least four of every ten votes being cast on an optically scanned ballot this year. Cross your fingers and hope for dry weather on election day! Or make sure that you have procedures in place for drying out paper ballots if for some reason the humidity levels are high in your jurisdiction on election day (and be prepared to tell candidates, the media, and the public that they won’t get immediate gratification in the form in real-time election returns immediatedly after the polls close).

One other minor point to make for my colleagues who study residual votes and voting technology; does this story suggest that they need to control for rain or humidity levels when estimating the residual vote associated with optical scanning devices? I’m only joking, but I do wonder.