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Our options for voting machines are better than BOE says

By John Bonitz
Posted Saturday, January 14, 2006

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Silk Hope, NC - A couple weeks ago I wrote a letter to the Chatham Chatlist entitled “Why Should I Care About Voting Machines?” A few days later nearly a hundred people showed up at a poorly advertised forum on voting machines. After watching the salesman demonstrate his machines, the forum was opened to questions & answers. The Board of Elections were unwilling to talk about the cost of these machines until after the Q&A period. Many in the audience felt they were being deceived and didn't hesitate to vocalize this feeling. (Quite a few of those upset citizens were aware of the many studies showing Optical Scanners and paper ballots are the least expensive option.)

Many in the audience felt they were being deceived and didn't hesitate to vocalize this feeling.

Audrey Poe, chair of the BOE, eventually began revealing some of the costs to the clamoring audience. She acknowledged that the Board did not have all of the costs, did not have a budget prepared, and were unable to compare the costs of the different machines. One audience member was so incensed; Ms. Poe threatened to remove him from the meeting.

The forum included an opportunity to vote – on paper ballots – as to which system the attendees preferred and why. A later tally of these blue ballots showed that attendees rejected the computerized "touch-screen" machines 3 to 1.

Two days later, the Board of Elections met, reviewed a cost comparison prepared by staff, and decided to propose purchase of a system of computerized touch-screen machines. Shockingly, the basis for their decision was that a system of touch-screen machines would be less expensive. Copies of the BOE Cost Comparison were distributed to the citizens attending the meeting.

Since this meeting, many concerned Chatham citizens have been scrutinizing this BOE cost comparison. Through the wonders of the Internet, we are finding authoritative sources of accurate cost information for election related equipment. (See references.) The State Board of Elections, the State Legislature, and the actual bid sheet offered by ES&S (the equipment vendor) are providing us with precise information that contradicts with the numbers put out by the BOE. A number of problems have been identified, and brought to the attention of the BOE and elections staff. The errors, omissions, and flawed assumptions in the cost comparison lead some to conclude that the BOE is biased or corrupt. I prefer to conclude that they did the best they could given very little time, and a lack of experience with financial analysis.

For example, one error in the Cost Comparison was a line item for “consumable supplies” for the touch-screen system. Perhaps due to a misplaced decimal point, this ~$40,000 cost was reported by staff to be only $4,025. Without attributing any blame, BOE member E.H. Dark agreed that this was truly a “gross error.” Indeed, any estimate that results in an error approaching $36,000 is gross.

The cost of paper ballots – a crucial element in a voting system using Optical Scanners – was off by almost 100%. The State Board of Elections tells us that ballots cost between 16 cents and 27 cents. The Chatham BOE appears to have assumed ballots costing 36 cents apiece. In an office that prints an average of 40,000 ballots a year, those pennies add up to big money. This line item should be revisited.

Another odd inconsistency with the cost comparison was the fact that staff rounded-up the costs of Optical Scanners, but used the precise bid price for touchscreen devices, also known as DREs. Mistakes like this are easy to make, and should not be assumed to show bias.

The bottom line with our analysis is that Touch Screen machines are more expensive.

The bottom line with our analysis is that Touch Screen machines are more expensive. My own calculations show that the BOE over-estimated the long-term costs of an OptiScan voting system by more than 1/3 of a million dollars. And they under-priced a DRE system by $368,000.

Not to toot our own horn, but we concerned citizen-voters also found and pointed out costs for the Optical Scanners that the BOE failed to identify. Given that we are very open in our preference for OptiScan, I think we deserve some credit for pointing out missed costs amounting to thousands of dollars per year for this system. If only the BOE estimates had been so thorough.

Finally, there is the matter of the grant funds: Federal and state grants combined give us $312,000 of “free” money to spend as we choose. If Chatham County buys the DRE computer voting machines, we'll have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars of our tax-paid money. If we choose Optical Scan machines, the grant funds should cover all (or almost all) of the cost.

I hope everyone who votes in Chatham County will attend the Board of Commissioners' meeting on Tuesday night (1/17/06 - 6:30 pm) in the Old County Courthouse in Pittsboro.

ES&S Bid Submittal
(Contains the actual precise prices for the major equipment BOE is considering purchasing.)

Fiscal Impact of Senate Bill 223 (Third Edition), Public Confidence in Elections (NC)
(This report contains estimates from the State Board of Elections regarding prices of paper ballots, booths, and both types of voting machines. Search for “booth.”)

Duke University Computer Scientist, Justin Moore's study comparing costs of DREs and OptiScans in Chatham County

(This page was part of a larger statewide study. Mr Moore is a member of the National Committee for Voting Integrity.)
Justin Moore's credentials, papers, and other work on computerized voting issues:

Other studies comparing the costs of DREs and OptiScan voting systems in North Carolina:

John Bonitz was trained as a policy analyst, is the son of a Chatham County dairy farmer, lives in Silk Hope, and votes in Hickory Mountain Precinct.

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