Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Critics dislike eSlate voting, but officials praise it

County clerk says the system has far fewer problems than ‘touch-screen’

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle

Oct. 29, 2008, 12:24AM

No county in America uses more eSlate voting machines than Harris County. And with early voting already setting record highs, probably more votes will be cast here by Nov. 4 than ever before.

So the debate about whether eSlates are accurate, secure and easy to use is as passionate as ever.

Though voters may trust computer-based voting equipment no more than they trust a barrel of politicians, county elections officials and the Texas-based manufacturer say there is no evidence that anyone has ever tampered with election results recorded by the ``click wheel'' machines, or that eSlates have ever recorded votes incorrectly.

Critics, ranging from local computer scientists to election officials in other states, point to reports and studies that say eSlates are user-unfriendly, prone to errors and open to sabotage — and that the lack of evidence of tampering or balloting errors proves nothing either way.

The conflicting arguments leave some Houston-area voters with a smidgen of doubt, but not enough to keep them from casting their votes for president and other offices.

"It seems pretty user-friendly. As far as trusting the data, there's always room for error," financial analyst Tracy McGowen said Tuesday as he waited to vote early at a Fiesta supermarket near Reliant Stadium. "But hopefully they've taken care of that this year."

Also in line, flight attendant Paul Olney said eSlates are easy to use, "but it takes a little thought."

"I think when you get involved with computers and electronics there's a chance for error," he added.

Gladys Wallace, a retired former election worker waiting to vote, said the system is "very easy to use as far as I'm concerned" and "just as reliable as any human-made thing can be."

1 million voters

Harris County collects and counts votes with more than 8,200 eSlate machines and has spent $28 million on the equipment and related devices. Officials predict that more than 1 million Harris County voters will have used the machines by the end of Election Day.

County Clerk Beverly Kaufman, a Republican who administers elections, pointed out that eSlates have had many fewer reported problems than "touch-screen" technology, which has led to isolated cases in Texas of machines recording votes that were the opposite of voters' intentions.

"In light of what has transpired since with other equipment, the county made the right choice," Kaufman said Tuesday. "The equipment is resilient."

About 40,000 eSlate machines are in use in the world, according to manufacturer Hart InterCivic. "Not one has ever lost a vote," operations director Peter Lichtenheld said Tuesday.

But such assurances were insufficient to prevent Ohio election officials from finding earlier this year that eSlates are unreliable and too vulnerable to interference by rogue computer experts.

When it comes to government standards and testing of electronic voting machines, even the Hart InterCivic official acknowledges a problem.

"The current regulatory environment is simply moving too slowly and seems ill-defined," Lichtenheld said.

Much of the talk among voters about the eSlate system has focused on the "straight ticket" option and voting for president — to the point that the local Democratic Party has published advisories about them.

Contrary to rampant rumors, pressing the eSlate button for a particular party's slate of candidates applies to the selection for president. Voters who press a straight ticket button and mark a vote for their presidential candidate effectively erase their vote for president and preserve their votes for candidates of that party in all other races.

However, if a voter picks a straight-ticket option and then votes for the presidential candidate in another party, it will register.

ESlate defenders point out that voters can review their selections on a "summary screen," and change any unintentional mistakes, before recording their by pressing the "cast ballot" button.

But some experts shake their heads at the fact that voting for a presidential candidate for emphasis after voting "straight ticket" negates the selection for the White House.

"The eSlate has a number of odd and unpredictable behaviors with respect to straight-ticket voting," said Mike Byrne, Rice University associate professor of psychology and computer science.

With 40 judicial races on the list along with federal and local races, the Harris County general election ballot is one of the longest in the nation. Dan Wallach, who founded Rice's Computer Security Lab, pointed out that, because of the length, voters must examine three summary screens to check the accuracy of their votes.

Worse, he wrote in an article last week, "our research shows that as many as 63 percent of voters fail to notice errors on the summary screen."

Voters can get help from election workers if they become confused.

Wallach recommended that voters with limited experience with computers request the use of eSlate earphones that provide audio prompts which he said can help prevent mistakes.

Seeking to assure voters electronic voter counts cannot be changed by computer tampering, some states require that voting machines produce ATM-style receipts that each voter can examine — but not keep — showing whether their votes were recorded accurately. Texas is not among them.

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