Keeping an eye on the machines that count Minnesotan's votes

October 23, 2006

By Helen Palmer and Mark Halvorson, St. Paul Pioneer Press

When Minnesotans are asked to raise their hands if they think our electronic voting machines accurately count their votes, almost all hands go up. However, when asked if they think votes in other states are counted accurately, only a few hands go up. Voters in our state have confidence in our voting machines.

But relying on a voting machine to electronically count ballots without a meaningful audit is like making bank deposits without receiving monthly statements to verify the balance. Thanks to a new, groundbreaking state law requiring a post-election review, we will have a way to help verify the accuracy of our voting machines. This review is possible because all Minnesotans will cast their ballots on paper that are counted by optical scanners.

Some think we don't need this review law because our voting machines are accurate; however, no one can definitively say how accurate they are. While Minnesota will not use direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines, optical scanners are at risk for some of the same potential programming errors as DREs. Because of this risk, safeguards are essential to ensure accuracy. The review provides an important piece that has been missing in Minnesota elections.

The new review law requires a hand count of randomly selected precincts in every county. If the hand count from the review shows a difference (greater than 0.5 percent) compared with the machine count from Election Day, further hand counts are required. The races to be reviewed are U.S. Senate, U.S. House and governor.

Hundreds of Minnesotans will make election history in November when they participate in the first statewide observation of an election review. Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota and the League of Women Voters Minnesota are recruiting and training citizens in every county and from all political parties to be nonpartisan observers.

The Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 requires that all polling places have voting equipment that meets certain accessibility requirements. Minnesota will achieve compliance with that act by making the AutoMark ballot-marking machine available in every polling place. All ballots " those filled out by hand and those filled out with the AutoMark " will be counted electronically by optical scanners. While optical scanners have been used for almost 20 years in most counties in Minnesota, some counties will be using them for the first time.

A key component for both the AutoMark and the optical scanner is the ballot definition file; if this is prepared incorrectly the wrong candidate could be elected. While such documented errors are rare in Minnesota, here's one example.

In the 1998 race for Vadnais Heights City Council, the election results showed the incumbent lost by a margin of less than 1 percent. The results were challenged, and the new results showed that the incumbent actually won by a slim margin. An investigation revealed that the candidates' names were reversed during the preparation of the ballot definition file. While testing procedures have been improved since 1998, there is still room for human error.

"All complex systems are prone to error, and voting systems are no exception," Ramsey County Elections Manager Joe Mansky said. "As a result, we need to design testing and verification procedures to discover and correct these errors prior to Election Day and to verify the results after the election."

Numerous ballot programming errors have been documented in recent elections across the country. Computer experts we contacted stated that proper testing is likely to catch programming errors, but such testing has limited ability to catch defects or the presence of malicious code. The review is our best defense.

Minnesota's election officials are committed to accurate elections. These professionals will be joined by teams of citizen observers who will ensure that the review process is open and transparent. The review is not about who wins or loses, but whether the machines counted the votes accurately. What we learn will help set the "gold standard" for vote counting in our state and the nation.

Helen Palmer is president of the League of Women Voters Minnesota. Mark Halvorson is director of Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for accurate and verifiable elections. It's online at www.ceimn.org.