Friday, December 7, 2007

Voting Machine Clash

No-Confidence Vote
A Trinity professor and the secretary of the state square off over new voting machines
Hartford Advocate Nov. 24, 2005

Last week's voting machine demonstration at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge was strange. Although the center is a massive space, the actual demonstration was held in a cramped alcove. The six machines on display -- two each from the three companies that had made the cut for consideration, Avante, Danaher and Diebold -- were swarmed with people. There were no lines, no clear sense of order.

The event was the third of five statewide demonstrations of the three voting machines that had made the state's final cut for selection. Avante's and Diebold machines were high-tech touch-screen voting machines with interfaces clearly influenced by Microsoft Windows. The Danaher machine looked like the clunky lever voting machines that the new machines were supposed to replace. Each machine produced a hand-countable paper receipt, in accordance with a state bill passed last February.

"We have had 500 or more people on average at every demo this week," said Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz. It was more than she expected. "I was lying awake on Sunday night thinking 'What if no one comes?' Then we got to Buckland Mall and there were 75 senior citizens lined up early to try to check it out."

Last week's demonstrations were the culmination of a long, much-delayed voting-reform process. In 2004, Bysiewicz's office issued a Request For Proposal, or RFP, to voting machine vendors in order to begin replacing Connecticut's approximately 3000 voting machines, and to complywith the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 which established standards on voter procedures. The state hopes to have the process completed by Jan. 1, the deadline set by Congress for HAVA compliance.

One style of machine was conspicuously absent from the statewide display, in spite of the actions of voter advocacy group True VoteCT. The group, which formed about a year ago, is a coalition of computer science professionals and others with expertise in issues relating to voting technology.

Through their research, the group's members determined that optical scan technology was the best voting system for Connecticut. Optical scan systems work similarly to SAT scoring. A voter would mark up a dots on a form similar to the one familiar to anyone who's taken a multiple-choice test in the last 30 years.

"Optical scans have been around for a long time," True VoteCT organizer Ralph Morelli said. "It's a proven, mature technology."

Morelli, a tenured professor of computer science who has worked at Trinity College for 20 years, is a strong advocate of optical scan technology. He says the optical scan automatic paper trail would ensure transparency, avoid programming glitches that can occur with other machines, and cost less than those touted by the state.

The members of True VoteCT claim that Bysiewicz has largely ignored the group's optical scan recommendation throughout the process, and say the bids she requested are for "Direct Record Electronic (DRE)" machines, or e-voting machines. Bysiewicz and her staff have repeatedly denied that they are excluding any technology, particularly optical scan.

Morelli and other members of his group have made their concerns known to Bysiewicz. In addition to attending public question-and-answer sessions and round-table discussions of voting reform, True VoteCT members have sent several dispatches to Bysiewicz's office (which may be found on website).

On Sept. 19, Morelli sent a letter to Bysiewicz, asking her to reconsider optical scan technology and strongly recommended that she look into one particular machine called the Automark.

In Bysiewicz's reply, dated Oct. 5, the secretary noted that the group had consistently lauded Automark. Questioning the group's independent credentials, she refused to meet with members of True Vote on the grounds that they were endorsing the technology.

"Although you assert your organization is a 'non-profit, non-partisan advocacy group' without 'any kind of relationship with voting machine vendors,' the bulk of your letter is devoted to extolling the virtues of a single product by a single manufacturer, the Automark by ES&S," Bysiewicz's letter states.

Morelli and his fellow True VoteCT member Rich Sivel laughed when asked if they were shills for Automark.

"No one in the group has any interest in the company. No one in the group has any stock in the company. And in addition, we have a healthy skepticism about the technology," Sivel said.

A copy of Bysiewicz's response was sent by someone to Trinity College president Jim Jones. Morelli's letter was not written on college letterhead, and Morelli identified himself as a member of True VoteCT, not as a Trinity professor. He included his business card in the envelope, he says, so that he could be easily contacted.

Bysiewicz said she understood the inclusion of the business card to mean Morelli was speaking as a representative of the college. Morelli said he was surprised that the letter had been copied to Jones.

"I asked [President Jones] if he knew the secretary -- I assumed that's why she might have copied him on the letter," Morelli said. "He said that he didn't know her, and that we should be applauded for working on the issue."

When asked if her office routinely sends copies of letters to the bosses of her correspondents, Bysiewicz said, "That's something you'd have to ask my communication office."