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eSlate hate

Just a few thoughts regarding this article about the sSlate machines that Harris County uses.

County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, a Republican who administers elections, pointed out that eSlates have had many fewer reported problems than “touch-screen” technology, which has led to isolated cases in Texas of machines recording votes that were the opposite of voters’ intentions.

“In light of what has transpired since with other equipment, the county made the right choice,” Kaufman said Tuesday. “The equipment is resilient.”

If my only choices were eSlate and touch screen, I’d definitely choose eSlate. Touch screens are very problematic. Of course, these aren’t the only possible choices, and even if they were, there’s plenty of room to improve the eSlate experience. Just being better than touch screens, which is akin to being more ethical than Ted Stevens, isn’t enough.

About 40,000 eSlate machines are in use in the world, according to manufacturer Hart InterCivic. “Not one has ever lost a vote,” operations director Peter Lichtenheld said Tuesday.

But such assurances were insufficient to prevent Ohio election officials from finding earlier this year that eSlates are unreliable and too vulnerable to interference by rogue computer experts.

When it comes to government standards and testing of electronic voting machines, even the Hart InterCivic official acknowledges a problem.

“The current regulatory environment is simply moving too slowly and seems ill-defined,” Lichtenheld said.

The day is coming, if you don’t think it’s already happened or is already happening now (which, for what it’s worth, I don’t), that someone will successfully launch an attack on eSlate machines in a way that materially affects the outcome of at least one election. I think before that day comes, we’re likely to see an eSlate machine fail in some way as to prevent some votes from being counted. It’s for that reason that I’ve advocated a backup system such as a printed receipt of each person’s votes, which get collected at the polling place.

Contrary to rampant rumors, pressing the eSlate button for a particular party’s slate of candidates applies to the selection for president. Voters who press a straight ticket button and mark a vote for their presidential candidate effectively erase their vote for president and preserve their votes for candidates of that party in all other races.

However, if a voter picks a straight-ticket option and then votes for the presidential candidate in another party, it will register.

ESlate defenders point out that voters can review their selections on a “summary screen,” and change any unintentional mistakes, before recording their by pressing the “cast ballot” button.

But some experts shake their heads at the fact that voting for a presidential candidate for emphasis after voting “straight ticket” negates the selection for the White House.

“The eSlate has a number of odd and unpredictable behaviors with respect to straight-ticket voting,” said Mike Byrne, Rice University associate professor of psychology and computer science.

I gave the straight ticket vote experience a test myself this year. While it did what I’d have expected it to do, I definitely think the warning screen, as well as the final summary screen, could be clearer and easier for non-sophisticated users to understand.

With 40 judicial races on the list along with federal and local races, the Harris County general election ballot is one of the longest in the nation. Dan Wallach, who founded Rice’s Computer Security Lab, pointed out that, because of the length, voters must examine three summary screens to check the accuracy of their votes.

Worse, he wrote in an article last week, “our research shows that as many as 63 percent of voters fail to notice errors on the summary screen.”

This for sure should be addressed. At the very least, it should be more obvious that you have more than one page to verify. Again, I think a printed receipt would go a long way to help with that.

One last point: I can just about guarantee that the eSlates will be an issue in the 2010 election for County Clerk. I’m not as negative on them as some folks, but I definitely think there’s a lot of room for improvement, and I don’t think that has been anywhere near sufficiently addressed. I look forward to having this discussion at that time.

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One Comment

  1. Gary D says:

    The warning screens have been improved. As a judge, my big concern was with people who managed in the past to cast blank ballots. There are warnings now on that as well as a patch preventing a cast ballot while still on the instructions section. Other warnings involving changing straight ticket votes have been added.
    Of all the evoting machines we have the best, still not saying that much.
    I am still more concerned with the county and state vote tabulator software and how easy that is for someone with access to the PC to hack without a trace left.