Punch Out Boise Candidates

For those who thought they had seen the end of the old “hanging chad” punch card ballots, think again.
Boise City is rolling out the cards November 6 for what will probably be one last hurrah. The system is being replaced at the county level with optical scanners and #2 lead pencil dots because there is only one repairman in the nation to fix the punch card counter–the guy who invented it.

Boise will have him on hand on election night in case anything goes wrong with the counting devices they have borrowed from Cassia County. Traditionally the city contracts with Ada County to count the ballots. Next time we vote, the new county system will be in place.

The new system is going to prove costly. Election managers pretty much have to print enough ballots for everyone to vote, despite never having a turnout over 50% for a city election and more commonly under 15%. That was no problem with the cards because they are the same for each election because numbered holes are punched. Unused cards could be used for future elections.

We have heard estimates that a City election currently costs about $35-40,000 to conduct. When the optical scanner ballots are included, costs shoot up to as high as $75,000. Under the new system each ballot is specially printed with the candidate names for each election. Unused ballots are useless for much more than note pads.

Turnout for the lackluster Boise City race is expected to be light. In Eagle the race has the promise of shaping the direction of area growth for years to come. City elections will be held throughout the state.

Comments & Discussion

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  1. So the ballots are expensive.
    What about the system itself? A few million, or what?

  2. Steve Ackerman
    Oct 31, 2007, 4:50 pm

    As someone who was born and raised in the West with the punchcard ballot, but voted in Palm Beach County, Florida in the 2000 election, I’ve got some interest in this story.

    Many people believe the optical scanner is simply more accurate than the punchcard. It’s not necessarily true, for there are errors that can be made and while they’re typically not as many as with a punchcard system, the average voter tends to miss more often if they’ve made a mistake with optical scanners than with punchcards.

    Second, the punchcard ballot system offers a paper trail that is not beholdened to any machine, power failures, etc. That is the best guarantee against a problem in a close election. Imagine what they would have had to do in Florida, had they not had punchcard ballots that were so easily, quickly, and clearly accessible.

    Third, accuracy is well-insured with a punchcard ballot. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the problem in Palm Beach, Broward, Dade, and Duval counties was not the punchcard itself, but the argument over what ought to be the standard for a completed vote on a candidate category, and then — quite unfortunately — the changing standards that occurred in the middle of counts.

    Fourth, punchcard systems are cheaper to install and cheaper to maintain. They tend to last longer, are simpler to use, and have minimal breakdown issues.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, the problem with things like the famous “butterfly ballot” was the county elections officer’s way of trying to fit 10 different Pres and VP candidates on an open page. If she put “tier-2” candidates on another page, requiring voters to have to turn the page, then those candidates could have cried foul. So, they put everybody on the same page, utilizing both sides. If everybody was only on one side of a single page, then the type would have been too small for some to be able to read. The county was trying to avoid mistakes, but careless voters made them anyway.

    Elections require that voters pay attention to who they’re voting for and double-check their decisions. The people that called for another election in Florida do not understand democracy, or respect the power of their vote. Elections are one-shot deals because if you have another one, you cannot be sure that the voter was intimidated, voted differently because of partial results being reported, etc.

    It’s sad that we automatically go to new and more expensive technology, in the name of what more accuracy? Elections have never been, nor will they ever be 100% accurate. You are dealing with human behavioral endeavors, and this always brings in the potential for mistake.

    Further, this does not mean that we can then never be sure about an election. This is a false choice to imply, as the change to optical scanners does, that if you stay with punchcard, you don’t know if the count is accurate, but if you go with optical scanners, you know for sure the count is accurate.

    Consider the recount endeavors that occurred in Florida during the 2000 election. Bush won the election, he won the automatic recount that must occur by law, and he was winning in the hand recount the Gore campaign sought in the four counties they disputed when the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the equal protection clause had been violated because of the changing and different standards among the counties, and 5-4 that there was not enough time to complete a statewide hand recount under one standard.

    Whether one agrees politically or not, the fault was not in the punchcard ballot system, but in the way the ballots were counted. Those who think they voted wrong should have paid more attention to how they voted. Also, everybody received a sample ballot that looked exactly like the actual ballot.

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, the punchcard ballot was about the only thing one could count on. We throw out this successful system at our peril.

  3. Steve Ackerman said:
    “Contrary to conventional wisdom, the punchcard ballot was about the only thing one could count on. We throw out this successful system at our peril.”

    That’s nonsense. As you mentioned the punched card is an interchangeable template of the ballot placed above it with no traceable path back to how the voter may have intended to vote if the ballot had been tampered with, or replaced with a bogus one. At least with a printed ballot the number two pencil mark will be alongside the the printed name of the candidate I voted for and my intentions will be clear.

  4. I’d be more supportive of the new system if it weren’t manufactured by the same company ES&S, that produced the fatally flawed Automark system that was supposed to provide privacy for sight impaired voters. NONE of these (50K each?) machines were working at the last election and NONE were placed in the precincts.
    Additionally, ballots will not be scanned and counted at the precincts (as they do in other states where this system is used), and as these ballots require much more time to handle and count than the punch cards, the County has said election results will not be available on election night, and perhaps not for days after the election.

    New and improved? Mmmmm, maybe just new.

    I also question the argument that repairs and maintenance are not available for the punch card system, as it appears several Idaho counties (including Canyon, I believe) will continue to use the paunch card system. I don’t see how this could be certified if the punch card system is defunct.

    Ericn1300, you may want to Google ES&S, read some of the articles and then tell me how confidant you are in this new system.

  5. right_on_boise
    Nov 1, 2007, 12:55 pm

    Whatever the voting process, please tell all to vote this tuesday 11-6-07.
    This city needs to get back to it roots.

    Jim Tibbs-Mayor
    Steve Kimball-Seat #1
    Redgie Bigham-Seat #3
    Carol Wingate-Seat #5

    A Mayor & Council that will “listen” to the people not talk “down” to them!

  6. I should have mentioned that I am a field engineer that was hired by ES&S to provide on site support for the new voting machines in Idaho during the 2006 elections. Idaho decided that we charged too much and canceled the support contract so I was shifted to Montana where the elections went off near flawlessly in one of the closest elections in the country: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montana_United_States_Senate_election,_2006

    Optical scanning and number two pencils have long been used for large scale tasks such as the SAT and ACT test scoring with little controversy. The Automark is an audit ready terminal that merely automatically marks the ballot for disabled voters and returns the ballot to the voter for review before turning it in for optical scanning. All other ballots are manually marked by the voter themselves.

    The problems Idaho had is that they did not choose to go with hand marked ballots which could be optically read but chose to continue with the punch cards and use the the Automark only for disabled voters to meet the minimum federal standards, and hand count those ballots, skipping the optical counting measures. The Automark also had mechanical problems with the cheaply printed ballots Idaho chose to go with. Bad perforations, misaligned printer marks, unintended print reductions, etc… You go on the cheap and you get what you pay for.

    I did do a Google on ES&S before accepting the position and was aware of the problems your links allude to before accepting the position. I do agree that the touch screen voting machines being brought out now by ES&S and others do have security concerns but the Automark and optical scanning system if they had been implemented properly would have been beneficial to Idaho, and audit proof.

    I actually had to sit with a group of election judges to resolve questions over the technology and had many a flash back to that fish eyed guy peering at a hanging chad as they went over ballots with erasures, mark outs and wimpy or multiple number two pencils marks trying to determine the voters intentions. It ain’t perfect, just make sure there is an audit trail. And never volunteer to be an election judge unless you want to be up for 48 hours or more.

  7. Thanks ericn1300, for the first hand information. I’m not surprised that some of the problems we encountered in 2006 were due to skimping on the expenditures from the County for the election process. If you were not aware already, your professional support was replaced by volunteer college students that, while well intentioned, were unable to field any of the Automarks for use. The common problem was, as you said, with the printing and not the user interface or recording of votes.

    Actually, the procurement of the Automark system was prompted by a lawsuit filed with the Justice Dept. for failing to provide privacy for voters with disabilities. The County and State would like folks to think that this is part of HAVA (Help America Vote Act) or out of the goodness of their hearts just to help out the poor old voter. Although there a many (if not most) conscientious and professional folk that work the elections (both full time positions and poll workers) there is always the pressure to produce the product (elections) at a bargain price. Personally I don’t think we spend enough on elections, which should be the last place to look to pinch pennies in a representative democracy.

    If you’re still on the thread eric, can you address the issue of tabulating the ballots? I was told that other states (in this case Texas), use the same equipment, but have tabulation at the precinct in real time (I’m assuming the ballot box accepts and counts the ballot)so that results are available shortly after the polls close. In that case, a second count is made of the combined ballots to verify the initial results. Ada county will be collecting and counting the ballots in a central location, as was done with the punch cards, and has said results would not be available on election night as the Automark ballots require much more time to process. Seems to me like this is a step back in time for the “information age” and will definitely put a crimp in the fun (or disappointment) of election night parties.

    Too late for the caveat about volunteering, it’s a problem I’ve had from way back. But it also explains my concerns and interest in the process, which many folks seem to take for granted.

    I also agree that of all the options, the Automark ballot, fill in the circle approach is fairly intuitive, is certainly familiar to many people and provides a clear paper trail. The voters intent will also be much more clear with these ballots, compared to punch cards.

    I’m still curious too though, who will be servicing the remaining Votomatics in the counties of Idaho that have chosen to retain this system. How can a defunct system be certified?

    (And now I hear the faint voice of David Allen Coe….”Pissin’ in the wind”. Statistically speaking, a minority of eligible citizens bother to vote, let alone care who counts the ballots. Show me wrong, Guardian readers?)

  8. The Automark and the hand marked number two pencil ballots are designed to be tabulated by optical scanning but ADA county only bought the Automarks to meet the minimum federal election requirements and did not buy optical tabulators so all ballots cast on the Automark will have to be hand counted, delaying the final tally. By the way, the Automarks are available to any voter who wants to use them, not just the disabled, and Judges are to report or remove anyone who tries to discourage a voter from using one. Poll workers are not doctors and not all disabilities such as illiteracy are visible. In Montana we had about 10 ballots rejected by the Automark and the problem was remedied simply by instructing the poll workers to do a better job of getting a clean tear on the perforations before issuing the ballot and having an election judge spoil and reissue any obviously bad ballots before they were inserted into the machines.

    They do have optical tabulators designed for precinct use and are used in populous counties like Oakland county in Illinois or in huge territories like some Texas counties to speed things up. The two counties I supported in Montana had a single tabulator at each court house. They started counting the absentee and early voters early in the afternoon and manged to have 80% of the total ballots including precincts counted by 10:30.

    The optical tabulators designed for precinct use are quite expensive since they are built like safes and have to be tested and sealed by the county for delivery to the precincts. They also have the additional expense of having to be stored in a secure area between elections. There is a two key system where a judge from each party must be present for the poll workers to open the boxes to clear a jam but all electronics, software and storage remains under seal. My duties as an on site support rep was to keep my hands in my pockets and never touch the machines, only observing and instructing the poll workers if they got stuck on something. Precinct level tabulators and Automarks are not allowed to be repaired or tampered with on election day and if they fail or are suspect they are taken out of service and returned to the court house for a recount. It only takes one judge at the precinct level to declare a machine suspect and have it removed to the court house for a recount. Then they have to wait for a spare to be programed and delivered if available. Since the poll workers are not allowed to touch a cast ballot, the voters themselves are required to either put the ballot into the tabulator or a ballot box, any ballots cast while a tabulator is out of commission must be put in a ballot box and taken to the court house for counting.

    The larger high speed tabulators at the court house are open air machines that are set up in a secure area and operated by county recorders office employees, and are monitored by election judges from all parties. A well running machine has a definite rhythm to it and you should see the judges all jump up and crowd the machine when they heard it so much as hiccup from time to time. No jams, miss feeds or double feeds may be touched by the operators with out the judges O.K. And any damaged or unreadable ballots are taken to a table full of those fish eyed guys who examine and count the ballot with each party signing off on a hand counted ballot. As the ballot boxes arrive from the precincts they are counted by precinct as each may have different ballots, such as ADA county which has two different congressional districts in the county and bunches of local districts. The machine has to tabulate each type of ballot separately and store results and sort the ballots by precinct in the case of a recount by a precinct.

  9. idagreen said: (And now I hear the faint voice of David Allen Coe….”Pissin’ in the wind”. Statistically speaking, a minority of eligible citizens bother to vote, let alone care who counts the ballots. Show me wrong, Guardian readers?)

    The 2006 elections in Ada County had a larger than expected turn out with most voters showing up on their way home from work in a close election (Bill Sali (R): 49.94% (115844). Larry Grant (D): 44.79% (103914)) which caused long lines and many votes to never be cast, let alone counted. People lined up out the doors waiting for a chance to vote but were shut out by mandatory times. Many others just drove off after shaking there heads. It’s time to either move elections to a Saturday, have multiple day elections, vote by mail, or have a mandatory national holiday declared. We need to make voting more convenient to the electorate as was the original choice of the first Tuesday following the first Monday in November.

    In those days we were an agrarian society and the farmers could not leave their fields during the growing season. It also took voters over a day sometimes to travel to the nearest polling place. The choice of Tuesday was because most Americans would not travel on the sabbath back then, which excluded any two day trips on the weekend and Tuesday was the next available choice. The choice of the first week in November was because it was safely between the harvest and the first snows. Not sure who made those decisions but they were clearly designed to get out the vote.

    Tuesday is no longer as convenient as it was intended to be, particularly if you have to pull a 12 hour shift or have two jobs. Times have changed, time for a change in voting practices, time to get out the vote.

    For all you David Allen Coe fans, I’d like to see that happen before momma gets run over by the train

  10. Thanks for the info. Yes, Idaho does usually have a decent turnout at the polls for general elections, but primaries and bond elections are often poorly attended. The lines and long waits in some precincts were, I believe, due to poor planning by the county and the failure to recognize some of the changes in our culture that effect when and how people vote rather than an increase in voter interest and participation.

    However, my concern is not only for voter turnout, but for a more engaging civic commitment outside of the voting booth. Showing up to vote without having an understanding of the issues or familiarity with candidates is about as meaningful as a toss of the coin. As a poll worker, I have had people ask me how they should vote, and admit that they don’t know anything about the choices on the ballot. That’s not democracy in action, it’s a crap shoot

    I think that a combination of voting methods would best serve voters, that is have both vote by mail and have regular polling places for example. But there needs to be a greater commitment on behalf of the public to be informed and active before they get to the polls.

    BTW, when I am President I will make election day a holiday. Think that will help?

    Thanks again for the information. It will be interesting to see how the new system is implemented. Ada County does provide some training for poll workers, but some folks still seem to not understand the process, or the need for confidentiality and security.

    I’m afraid at times that Momma doesn’t have a chance, as she’s tied to the tracks by a combination of political oligarchies and citizen apathy. And I don’t see a Dudley Do-Right anywhere on the political scene to get her out of this jam. I guess it’s up to us.

  11. idagreen said: I believe, due to poor planning by the county and the failure to recognize some of the changes in our culture that effect when and how people vote rather than an increase in voter interest and participation.

    Yep, you almost got it. Incompetence, inconvenience, obsolete technology and an election board that refuses to change it’s ways except when slapped upside the head by the FEC with HAVA, or threatened with a law suit. If they were a business operating that way no customers would come back and they would soon be out of business. Oh that’s right, their customers aren’t coming back. The elections are unlike any other government function such as the DMV. People don’t have a choice if the service is bad at mandatory government services, but voters can choose not to participate and just drive off if service is bad on election day.

    idagreen said: there needs to be a greater commitment on behalf of the public to be informed and active before they get to the polls.

    I agree, even in the money driven, media heavy environment in which most people make their decisions grass roots campaigning, voter education and candidate evangelism can have real results. I don’t yet have confidence about the security of Internet voting but like voting by mail you would have the time to step back from the ballot when coming across a name or initiative that you don’t recognize and maybe doing a little research before just voting the party line. Maybe do a Google or ask your neighbors about a candidate or issue you’re not sure about. But then again if your neighbors are like mine that would just be a contrary vote and they would just cancel each other’s out.

    From “Castles in the Sand” by David Allan Coe:

    After all the smoke had cleared away
    Did not take me long to find out what you had to say
    This is just a game
    And I’m glad I finally learned to play
    By the rules
    Do they think we’re fools

  12. Steve Ackerman
    Dec 8, 2007, 2:45 pm

    With all due respect to “ericn1300’s” expertise and experience – and I believe he/she shows it here – it’s not clear that an optical tabulation is a better method of voting than a punchcard. For example, a person makes a choice and marks the ballot, and then changes their mind and erases the first choice. Is the system sophisticated enough to catch the difference? I’m not clear it is. We would then have the very “voter intent” problem he/she raises with it.

    With the punchcard, the voter punches out the section, and intention is then clear. We’ve all used them and the argument that came up over intention was the result of changing standards during the counting process — how many corners needed to be knocked out, etc. That was NOT the fault of the punchcard, but the fault of those who were setting and then changing the rules of when a vote should be counted, AND to determine for themselves voter intent. Some of both were manufactured by the counters, and NOT the fault of the technology.

    As for traceability, the punchcard is more clearly traceable than an optical or scanner-based system because the ballot number is registered to the voter’s name. Second, the number has been punched out. Third, there is no separate prinout that need occur. Fourth, there isn’t even an outside energy source needed.

    Intention is NOT what we think the voter intended to do — this was the problem in Palm Beach County — it is what they did. If I punch out the #5 block, that is my intention, whether I wanted to or not. That is how elections work.

    Elections are one-time events. There cannot be a do-over in an election because then results are tainted. People rethink their opinion, which is what an election is ultimately, they change their mind after talking with somebody, etc. What happened in Florida with the recounts that occurred after the one required machine recount of the ballots was a version of a do-over with people seeking to introduce various intents based on traditional voting patterns of different presincts and counties. That is not ascertaining voter intent, that is changing votes.

    Let’s also not forget that there is NO fullproof technology. Every state’s election law assumes a certain percentage of voter error. Accuracy has never been a 100% endeavor in elections. You don’t need 100% accuracy to obtain a result in an election. You need an acceptable level of accuracy to obtain a result in en election. All statistical testing assumes a certain percentage of error — everything from public opinion polls to double-blind experiments.

    This is NOT that you can manipulate statistics to get any result you want. If you follow one method properly, you get the same result every time. It is when you change the method (the way you count) that changes the results. That is not the fault of the method, it is the fault of the people who are counting.

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