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Report: Widely Used Voting Machine Missed 0.4% of Ballots

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Aspen (CO) Analysis Illustrates Need for Redundant Vote Counts and Transparency

Proving the value of transparency and redundancy in ballot-counting, an independent rescanning of ballots cast in the May 5, 2009 elections in Aspen (CO) showed that the voting machines used for the initial vote count entirely missed 11 (0.4%) out of the 2,544 ballots cast. The ballots were initially counted with Pitkin County's Premier (formerly Diebold) AccuVote optical scan voting machines, one of the most widely used optical scanning systems in the country. The error was discovered when TrueBallot, Inc., employed under contract with the city of Aspen to re-tally the elections at a central location, rescanned all ballots using a commercial off-the-shelf scanner and discovered the erroneously disregarded 11 ballots.

FairVote recommends that measures be taken to ensure that the errors of the Premier machines are not repeated. "We have seen that when elections are tabulated using non-proprietary, commercially available systems and equipment, the results have proven to be more verifiable than with closed, proprietary systems," said FairVote senior analyst Terrill Bouricius, author of a report on the findings (see below). The report also notes that when the Humboldt County (CA) Election Transparency Project conducted a re-scan of AccuVote ballots using commercial scanners in 2008, 197 dropped ballots were discovered. "It is troubling to know that errors by machines made by one of the largest providers of voting equipment in the United States could go undetected because there is typically no transparent mechanism used to recheck the results. We need to build redundancy into our election tallies."

Bouricius's report includes specific policy recommendations for the city of Aspen as well as broader lessons learned, applicable to elections across the U.S., regarding the recording of individual ballot records, manual audits and public release of raw data from elections to allow independent tallying of the results. Notably, the election in question included Aspen's first use of instant runoff voting, a ranked voting system, which did not in any way contribute to any of the errors discovered, but did lead the city to do the central scanning that uncovered the error.

The following is the report in its entirety (or view online).

* * * *

Premier AccuVote Machines Missed 0.4% of Ballots in Aspen (CO) Elections

Error's discovery shows value of redundant ballot-counting methods

By Terrill Bouricius, FairVote Senior Analyst

On May 5th 2009, Aspen (CO) held municipal elections for mayor, two city council seats and a ballot measure. Pitkin County's Premier (formerly Diebold) AccuVote optical scan voting machines failed to register 11 (0.4%) of 2,544 ballots, which was discovered due to the ballots also being counted on Election Day at a central location with a separate system. Premier is one of the three largest providers of voting equipment in the United States.

Aspen had more voters at its polls than ever before in its history. It was the first election with the city's system of instant runoff voting for electing the mayor and a variation of instant runoff voting (IRV) for city council. In both ranked voting methods, voters were allowed to rank candidates in order of choice. First choices were counted at the polls with Premier's AccuVote system provided by the county, then the full paper ballots were counted at a central location where there was an independent re-scanning of the ballots. This re-scanning uncovered errors in the results reported by the AccuVote machines, and most alarming, revealed the fact that 11 ballots were entirely missed by the AccuVote machines. The ballots were re-scanned using a commercial off-the-shelf scanner as part of an independent system TrueBallot, Inc., employed under its contract with the city to tally the instant runoff voting elections.

The TrueBallot system did not simply record votes and keep running totals for each candidate, but rather captured an actual graphic image of each individual ballot. This redundant record of each individual ballot allowed for a higher level of accuracy in determining voter intent, with apparent over-vote or under-vote ballots being able to be projected onto a screen allowing election judges to rule on voter intent. There is currently a legal battle in Aspen about whether these graphic images are public records that should be made available to the public. FairVote believes the public interest is best served by full election transparency and that the images should be made public.

To underscore the importance of the missing 11 ballots, it is not uncommon for manual recounts of optical scan elections to find new valid votes that were discounted by the optical scan voting machine, either because the machine detected a stray pen mark as an over-vote (voting for more candidates than allowed), or because a voter marked a choice too lightly or outside the designated spot on the ballot, such that the machine detected an under-vote, or skipped race. Such "found" votes are common in manual recounts where humans can recognize a voter's intent that the optical scan machine could not. In the recent Aspen election, the independent scanning of ballots did indeed allow election officials to find at least one such valid vote missed by the AccuVote voting machines.

However, this problem is unrelated to the discovery that nearly a half percent of ballots - 11 ballot cards in all - went entirely unrecorded by the AccuVote machines. According to Aspen City Clerk Kathryn Koch, both the poll book record of the number of voters who voted and the TrueBallot record of ballots processed agree that there were 2,544 ballots. The AccuVote machines, however only recorded 2,533 ballots. These numbers can be calculated from the first round mayoral vote counts from the AccuVote and TrueBallot data on the city web site. We have put them into the following chart.

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Paul Fidalgo is the communications director for FairVote, the Center for Voting and Democracy.
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