Cuyahoga report highlights VVPAT challenges

While much of the discussion in the wake of the second Cuyahoga County report has focused on the questions about the report’s audit of the voting devices (and the vendor’s response to those questions), our friends at Electionline hit the nail on the head this afternoon.

A great piece in today’s Electionline Weekly by Dan Seligson points to the data in the ESI-lead report on the problems the report highlighted regarding the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT). It’s worth quoting extensively from Seligson’s piece, as it is the first media report so far that I’ve seen that has highlighted the fact that the report found that almost 10% of the VVPAT ballots studied were problematic:

Perhaps equally significant – and noteworthy – are the details of the considerable woes that plagued the voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system through careless election administration, printer failures or both.

Buried some 93 pages into the report, which was commissioned by county leaders and produced by the San Francisco-based Election Science Institute, are details of errors that included poll workers loading thermal paper into VVPAT printers backwards, blank audit trails, “accordion-style” crumpling of ballots, long blank spaces between ballots that could have represented missing or unprinted VVPATs, torn and taped-together VVPATs and missing ballot text.

ESI researchers found that nearly 10 percent of VVPAT ballots sampled were in some way compromised, damaged or otherwise uncountable, an alarmingly high proportion for a state that requires that paper be used as the ballot of record in the event of a recount.

That led ESI to the ominous conclusion that “in the event of a recount or election contest, the risk of legal challenges is exceptionally high if no significant modifications are made to the current election system.”

“The VVPAT is only as reliable as the administration of the system that produces the paper trail,” said Tracy Warren, the ESI researcher who led the manual VVPAT recount.

Warren said she hoped the ESI findings would be “immensely valuable” in helping jurisdictions – and particularly Cuyahoga County – avoid future mishaps in administrating votes using VVPAT systems.

While the vendor’s response so far has focused on raising questions about the analysis in the ESI report (which I’ll write about later), in Seligson’s piece the vendor’s perspective has shifted somewhat:

Diebold spokesman David Bear said most of the problems with Cuyahoga’s paper trails were caused by poll worker mistakes, with poor training as the primary culprit.

“Obviously it reflects poorly on the company and the county,” Bear said. “But the main concern is that you lessen the likelihood of that occurring. The things that we can do are to lessen the likelihood of problems with design. The other issue is that you have to beef up training. We work extremely hard with jurisdictions to help them make sure their training is at as high a level as possible.”

Bear said successful elections using the same equipment in other Ohio counties and outside of the state suggest “they’re not too difficult. It’s an issue of familiarity.”

Indeed, figuring out how improve training of pollworkers, and voter education, regarding the use of VVPATs is imperative. Seligson’s story notes that’s latest data indicates that nearly half (23) of states require the use of VVPATs for electronic voting.

But we also do need to figure out ways to improve the VVPAT technology, if it is going to continue to be used in association with e-voting. I’ll have more to say about that as well in later essays.