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November 29, 2006

Election Forum: Dumb scanners

By Joan Brunwasser

More discussion on how to approach election reform. Jump in at any time.


Re: suggested proposals for federal Election integrity legislation-- (dumb scanners) A scanner that can identify areas where there is supposed to be a circle and determine whether these areas are colored in is not, I would think, a dumb scanner. It looks for specific areas inside a specific rectangle and then has sufficient pattern recognition software to detect when a circle is colored in even if the voter hasn't colored every pixel's area or if there is some bleed over into the area external to the circle. Even if the scanner does not know what a colored circle means all that says is that the job of associating colored circles with candidates or issues must be done in another piece of hardware. There will always be a requirement to program the different ballot styles for every election. It is where this happens that there is high vulnerability to trojan horses and back doors. HCPB are the solution, it seems to me. Jerry Lobdill, an election integrity researcher in Tarrant County, TX. Bruce O'Dell replies: I agree with Jerry. The obvious question is: exactly what "problem" demands we apply optical scan technology to the vote tabulation process? Why should vote tabulation be done by machine and in secret, rather than by people and in public? How is a "dumb" scanning program better suited to interpret voter intent, rather than relying on the collective judgment of multiple, independent human observers representing all stakeholders in the election? The framers of the US Consitution enshrined this principle in the "separation of powers" doctrine; the only way to permanently prevent abuse of power is to share it among multiple parties, each one with the ability and motivation to check the excesses of the others. How is designing a ballot to accommodate the limitations of "dumb" optical scanning technology better than designing a ballot for ease of use by actual voters, to facilitate accurate recording of their intent, and fostering speed and accuracy of hand tabulation? How is a technology that must always be double-checked by people better than simply relying on people in the first place? We can debate the protocol and extent of hand-count validation of optical scan technology, but certainly not its necessity. The only way we really know what is running in a computer is to present the inputs, observe the outputs, and verify that the two correspond to specifications. When it comes to voting, the verification of the accuracy of the scanning software can only be done after the fact, and only by independently hand-counting a sample of paper ballots. Otherwise, you're simply using one set of untrustworthy software to verify another. But since people must always verify the accuracy of optical scan tabulation, I ask again: what value is optical scan technology adding to the overall vote tabulation end-to-end process? What civic benefit derives from removing citizens from their central role in overseeing the democratic process? I believe it is highly misguided to continue to promote an automated solution to a problem better solved by the absence of technology. Therefore I regard promotion of vote count automation as a violation of my professional code of ethics. I suggest Googling the phrase "disputed Canadian election" to see just how non-controversial hand-counted paper ballots in a modern democracy can be, and then a visit to to gain some practical insights into how best to remove machines from any role in counting votes - rather than in persisting in a misguided attempt to redeem them. -Bruce O'Dell Bruce O'Dell is a self-employed information technology consultant with more than twenty five years experience who applies his broad technical expertise to his work as an election integrity activist. He lives just outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, and shares a love of good books with his wife - and her beautiful garden, with their talkative cat.

Submitters Website:

Submitters Bio:

Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of transparency and the ability to accurately check and authenticate the vote cast, these systems can alter election results and therefore are simply antithetical to democratic principles and functioning.

Since the pivotal 2004 Presidential election, Joan has come to see the connection between a broken election system, a dysfunctional, corporate media and a total lack of campaign finance reform. This has led her to enlarge the parameters of her writing to include interviews with whistle-blowers and articulate others who give a view quite different from that presented by the mainstream media. She also turns the spotlight on activists and ordinary folks who are striving to make a difference, to clean up and improve their corner of the world. By focusing on these intrepid individuals, she gives hope and inspiration to those who might otherwise be turned off and alienated. She also interviews people in the arts in all their variations - authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, playwrights, and artists. Why? The bottom line: without art and inspiration, we lose one of the best parts of ourselves. And we're all in this together. If Joan can keep even one of her fellow citizens going another day, she considers her job well done.

When Joan hit one million page views, OEN Managing Editor, Meryl Ann Butler interviewed her, turning interviewer briefly into interviewee. Read the interview here.

While the news is often quite depressing, Joan nevertheless strives to maintain her mantra: "Grab life now in an exuberant embrace!"

Joan has been Election Integrity Editor for OpEdNews since December, 2005. Her articles also appear at Huffington Post, RepublicMedia.TV and