Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Fairfax County elections in the news again

While the rest of the country (except Minnesota) is taking a break from elections, it's still election time here in Virginia. Tuesday was a special election to fill a vacancy in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors (roughly the equivalent of a city council). The vacancy was caused when the former member was elected chair of the Board of Supervisors (roughly the mayor) in a special election in February. That vacancy was caused when the former chair was elected to Congress in November. A domino election, one might say.

But even simple elections aren't simple. Last night, things were unclear, as reported in The Washington Post. Today, I spent the day in the canvass, and things became a lot clearer.

In this election, there were 25 precincts, and 2 voting machines per precinct. All machines in question were made by Advanced Voting Solution (AVS), and are Windows-based touchscreens called WinVote. (AVS is out of business, as I've noted here before, and although another company is supposedly maintaining the machines, there's not much recourse for failure.) Unlike some other recent Fairfax County elections, there were no optical scans, except for absentee ballots.

In one of the precincts, there were two anomalous results:

First, on one of the two machines in this particular precinct, the zero tape showed the "public counter" having zero votes (which is as it should be), and then showed three votes for Mr. Cook, two for Mr. Moon, one for Mr. Campbell, and one write-in. That's the pattern Fairfax County uses for L&A testing. But how was it possible to reset the public counter after L&A testing without also resetting the vote totals?

Second, at the end of the day, the two machines synchronize via Wi-Fi (the same technology we use at home and in hotels), and then the master machine prints its own vote totals and the
combined vote totals. It showed a total of 359 votes cast (which would be about right for one machine in this low turnout election), of which 377 were for Mr. Cook, 328 for Mr. Moon, 15 for Mr. Campbell, and 3 write-ins, for a total of 723 votes. Yes, you read that right - 359 votes, but 723 recorded. And there were only 707 voters in the precinct, so it's not like it did the totals for the races but not the overall total. So clearly the per-candidate totals are wrong, and they don't add up to the total number of votes.

The "solution" was to bring up both machines in the precinct (one at a time), have them print their totals, then have them print the "ballot images" (which I put in quotes because they're the software representation of the ballot images), and add those up by hand. When they did that, the number of votes on the two machines combined equaled the number of voters who checked in at the polls, and for each machine the number of voters equaled the sum of the number of votes for the candidates. All of which makes perfect sense... except that it doesn't explain in any way the discrepancies.

Finally, one other piece of data: Virginia law says that in a case of machine malfunction, the board of elections is required to follow the instructions in the manual provided by the vendor. I got a chance to see the manual - it's totally silent on what to do. This had the Dem lawyer quite unhappy, since it meant that they're ignoring the law.

Shortly after the canvass completed, the Democrat conceded. He was 90 votes behind out of about 12,000 cast. Given Virginia's extremely restrictive recount law, I think that was the right decision - but it leaves unresolved what went wrong with the voting machines.

My one hope is that once again both parties will see the dangers of DREs - it was really a coin toss which side would win in such a close race without anything meaningful to look at.


Blogger Nick said...

Jeremy, TRANSPARENCY is the often overlooked answer to trustworthy elections. The Humboldt County Transparency project was a great success in California. All the ballots for a recent election were published on the web for all to see and to count. My company, TrueBallot, Inc. (Bethesda, MD) was able to count the election and to show how each ballot was counted. The future of election auditing is what is was in the past, "Hand Counting". By using technology in an appropriate manner, we get"Computer Assisted Hand Counts". It's like having an election certification system for every election. Alas, the big "Election Machine" companies have stacked the deck so that we now have a "Technocracy" inserted between the people and ballots. I believe this is being challenged by forward thinking communities and one day paper ballots will regain their status as the best way to run an election. Oh, and by the way. It's just as fast to run a paper election as with an all electronic system. Including the audit!

2:29 PM  

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