To cope with ballot scanners a federal agency has deemed faulty, Cuyahoga County’s elections board has mandated four tests during each election — plus an audit afterward — to guarantee results are right. The county even received a grant from the federal agency, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, to produce a how-to guide on testing and auditing, to give voters throughout the country greater confidence in elections.
“The board has become a nationwide leader in assuring accurate elections and understanding that technology can fail, and it’s their job to test carefully, not just occasionally, but persistently,” said Candice Hoke, an elections professor at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. “That is very good news.”
Rigorous testing matters in part because the election commission last week ruled the county’s ballot scanners were out of the compliance, the first such decision in the agency’s nine-year history. The machines, made by Omaha-Neb.-based Elections Systems & Software Inc. inexplicably freeze up, miss some votes and fail to log problems.
The elections commission released its findings after a 20-month investigation spurred by an April 2010 Plain Dealer story. And if ES&S can’t correct the flaws, the agency could decertify the machines and leave Ohio’s largest county with no way to conduct elections in a presidential year. Taxpayers spent more than $12 million on the scanners in 2008, to replace a $21 million touch-screen system that crashed twice on the night of the 2007 general election. Still, the voter-marked ballots are the most reliable option because they leave a paper trail, said Philip Stark, a University of California at Berkeley statistics professor. And that paper trail is auditable.
The county has hand-counted a small percentage of votes in elections since March 2008, said elections chief Jane Platten. But in November, the county began using a new procedure called a risk-limiting audit, in which workers count enough votes to ensure the outcomes are correct. The move made Ohio the third state to use the calculated method, said Stark, who devised it. “It’s really cutting edge on Jane Platten’s part to be doing this on a voluntary basis,” he said. “She’s leading the pack in Ohio.”